bookmark_borderGeisler & Turek Rebuttal: Chapter 9 (Part 2)

Chapter 9. Do We Have Early Eyewitness Testimony about Jesus?

By Matthew Wade Ferguson and Jeffery Jay Lowder
(This post continues where part 1 left off.)
(ii) New Testament Textual Accuracy: “Textual accuracy” measures the degree to which copies of a document match that of the original document. Although none of the original New Testament documents have survived, Geisler and Turek argue that the textual accuracy of the New Testament documents is superior to that of other ancient documents. In their words:

In fact, the New Testament documents have more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more abundantly supported manuscripts than the best ten pieces of classical literature combined. (225)

We agree with Geisler and Turek. If someone were to fallaciously claim that the New Testament can’t be trusted, as a whole, because it has been textually corrupted, then Geisler and Turek would be correct to object that this is false, because we have (mostly) reliable manuscripts.
By the same token, however, the New Testament’s textual accuracy does not improve its historical accuracy. Accurate textual transmission can preserve the historical accuracy of a work that was originally historically reliable, but it can do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of a work that was originally based on ahistorical legends. With that in mind, let us turn now to the question of historical accuracy.
(iii) New Testament Historical Accuracy: In this section, Geisler and Turek attempt to do three things: (a) propose seven historical criteria or tests to “determine whether or not to believe a given historical document” (230); (b) refute common objections to the reliability of the New Testament; and (c) argue that the NT documents are early.
Regarding (a) the historical tests, Geisler and Turek list the following seven tests: (1) do we have early testimony; (2) eyewitness testimony; (3) multiple, independent eyewitness sources; (4) trustworthiness; (5) corroborating evidence from archaeology or other writers; (6) enemy attestation; and (7) embarrassing details. According to them, “documents that meet most or all of these historical tests are considered trustworthy beyond a reasonable doubt” (231).
Let’s “zoom out” for a moment from the topic of the NT’s historical reliability and instead look at how this argument fits into Geisler’s and Turek’s “Twelve Points that Show Christianity Is True.” Geisler and Turek seek to defend the following inference:

6. The New Testament is historically reliable.
7. The New Testament says Jesus claimed to be God.
8. Jesus’ claim to be God was miraculously confirmed by
a. His fulfillment of many prophecies about himself;
b. His sinless life and miraculous deeds;
c. His prediction and accomplishment of his resurrection.  (28)

Geisler’s and Turek’s statement about historical tests, as well as points 6-8 of their twelve-point case for Christianity, suggests a previously unnamed version of an existing inductive argument form, which we shall call the “argument from general reliability.” Before we can introduce that argument form, however, we first need to review its “parent” argument known, the statistical syllogism. Statistical syllogisms have the following logical structure or form.

(1) Z percent of F are G.
(2) x is F.

(3) [Z% probable] Therefore, x is G.

One “child” version of the statistical syllogism is the argument from authority, which we discussed in chapter six. The simple version of the argument from general reliability is another “child” version of the statistical syllogism. It has the following structure.

(4) Source S is generally reliable.
(5) S reports that event E occurred.

(6) [probable] E occurred.

With this schema in place, let’s return to Geisler’s and Turek’s statement, “documents that meet most or all of these historical tests are considered trustworthy beyond a reasonable doubt.” If we replace S with “The New Testament documents” and E with “E1, …, En” (to represent the events reported by the New Testament documents), then Geisler’s and Turek’s simple argument from general historical reliability may be summarized as follows.

(4’) The New Testament documents are generally historically reliable.
(5’) The New Testament documents report that E1, …, En occurred.

(6’) [probable] E1, …, En occurred.

What Geisler and Turek fail to realize, however, is that general historical reliability alone does not suffice to make it probable, much less probable “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that event E1, …, En occurred. Although simple arguments from reliability are statistical syllogisms, simple arguments from reliability are logically incorrect because they violate the inductive Total Evidence Requirement. Such arguments ignore information about the base rates of events like E1, …, En and instead consider only information about the reliability of the historical source which reports E1, …, En. Statisticians call this error the base rate fallacy.
In order to fully appreciate the force of this objection, let’s turn to a non-theological example, one which is actually quite famous in the academic literature about reasoning under uncertainty. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, the authors of this example, describe it as follows.[1]

A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night. Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city. You are given the following data:
(a) 85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.
(b) A witness identified the cab as Blue. The court tested the reliability of the witness under the same circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colors 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.
What is the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green?

If you answered “There is an 80% probability the cab was blue,” you are in good company. Most people who consider this example say that the answer is “blue” because they are impressed by the witness’s 80% reliability. They seem to be implicitly appealing to the following simple version of the argument from general reliability.

(7) 80% of cab identifications made by witness W under conditions similar to those at the time of the hit-and-run accident are correct.
(8) W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is a cab identification made by W under similar conditions.

(9) [80% probable] W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is correct, i.e., a blue cab was involved in the hit-and-run accident.

The correct answer, however, is “There is a 59% probability the cab was green.” The argument in (7)-(9) is logically incorrect because its reference class (“cab identifications made by witness W under conditions similar to those at the time of the hit-and-run accident”) violates the requirement of total evidence. It does this by ignoring what we know about the base rates of green and blue cabs, i.e., the proportion of cabs that are green (85%) is much greater than the proportion of cabs that are blue (15%). Therefore, despite W’s 80% reliability, the most likely explanation (probability=59%) is that W is mistaken and he actually saw a green cab.
Still not convinced? Imagine that the town has exactly 1,000 cabs, so that 85%=850 and 15%=150. Then the breakdown in cabs can be shown by the diagram in Figure 2.


Figure 2

Since W is 80% accurate, when he testifies about the 850 green cabs, he will correctly testify that 80% of those 850 cabs (=680) were green and he will incorrectly testify that 20% of those 850 cabs (=170) were blue. This is shown below in Figure 3.


Figure 3

Similarly, when W testifies about the 150 blue cabs, he will correctly testify that 80% of those 150 blue cabs (=120) were blue and he will incorrectly testify that 20% of those 150 blue cabs (=30) were green. This is shown in Figure 4.


Figure 4

Let’s now return to our question: if an 80% reliable witness testifies the cab was blue, is it more likely that the cab was blue or green? The diagram in Figure 4 makes it easy to correctly calculate the probability, without having to remember the probability theorem known as Bayes’s Theorem. If we want to calculate the probability that the cab was blue, we take the number of times W correctly testified that the cab was blue (120) and divide it by the total number of times W testified that the cab was blue (170+120=290). In probability notation:


Similarly, if we want to calculate the probability that the cab was green, we take the number of times W incorrectly testified that the cab was blue (170) and divide it by the total number of times W testified that the cab was blue (170+120=290). In probability notation:


Although an 80% reliable witness testified the cab was blue, it is more likely that the cab was green because there are so many more green cabs than blue cabs. Our specific information about W’s reliability has been outweighed by our general information about the base rates of green and blue cabs. In the words of Tversky and Kahnemann, “In spite of the witness’s report, therefore, the hit-and-run cab is more likely to be Green than Blue, because the base rate is more extreme than the witness is credible.”[2]
Thus, instead of the statistical syllogism in (7)-(9), we should instead use a modified version, which we may call the complex version of the argument from general reliability.

(7’) 59% of all blue cab identifications made by W under similar conditions are incorrect.
(8’) W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is a blue cab identification made by W under similar conditions.
(10) The percentage stated in (7’) correctly incorporates the available information about the base rates of blue cabs.

(9’) [59% probable] W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is incorrect.

We have shown that simple versions of arguments from reliability to the historicity of an event are logically incorrect by ignoring information about the base rate of events of that type and, consequently, by using a reference class which fails to embody the total available evidence.
This, in turn, entails that Geisler’s and Turek’s twelve-point case for Christianity is, at best, incomplete. In order to show that the New Testament’s historical claims—such as the claim that Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and so forth—are probably true, Geisler and Turek must do more than defend the general historical reliability of the New Testament. They must also show that this general historical reliability is not outweighed by the base rates of those events.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”
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[1] Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, “Evidential Impact of Base Rates,” Judgment under Uncertainty: Heurists and Biases (ed. Daniel Kahnemann, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 156-57.
[2] Tversky and Kahnemann 1982, 157.

bookmark_borderGeisler & Turek Rebuttal: Chapter 9 (Part 1)

Chapter 9. Do We Have Early Eyewitness Testimony about Jesus?

By Matthew Wade Ferguson and Jeffery Jay Lowder
As we read them, Geisler and Turek seek to accomplish three things: (i) review the extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus; (ii) show the New Testament is textually accurate; and (iii) begin an extended, multi-chapter defense of the New Testament’s historical accuracy.
(i) Extra-Biblical Evidence: According to Geisler and Turek, (a) the ratio of ancient sources which record Jesus within 150 years of his lifetime to those which mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius is 43:10 (222), which (b) makes it unreasonable to believe that Jesus never existed. Furthermore, (c) taken together, all ten sources are consistent with the New Testament’s sequence of events. Finally, (d) non-Christian sources report that the disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead (223).
Regarding (a) the 43:10 Source Ratio, Geisler and Turek cite the scholarship of Michael Licona.[1] Licona claims that the ratio is 42:10, but Geisler and Turek increase this ratio to 43:10, by counting the Jewish Talmud as one of the extrabiblical sources which confirm Jesus’ historicity (424, n. 7).
Because the 43:10 source ratio would be a significant fact regarding the state of the available evidence if true, it is worth considering Licona’s evidence for this claim in detail. We shall argue that Licona’s 42:10 source ratio (and, in turn, Geisler’s and Turek’s 43:10 ratio) is inaccurate, skewed, and misleading, for ten reasons.
(1) The 42:10 Ratio Is Misleading about the Literary Sources for Jesus.
When Licona lists the 42 “accounts that now exist concerning Jesus,”[2] he does not specify that these are literary sources preserved through ancient narratives. Historians also consider epigraphical, papyrological, numismatic, and archaeological evidence—all of which are far more abundant for Tiberius than Jesus—but we will cover that later. We only specify that these are “literary sources” to dispel the impression that these are the ‘only’ sources.
Licona first lists the traditional authors of the New Testament:

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude.[3]

What need only be said here is that all of the traditional attributions given above are doubted by most critical scholars, with the exception of Paul. Church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE misattributed apostolic authorship to anonymous books like the Gospels,[4] a few works like Revelation were written by a “John” but not John the apostle, and some of the letters like 1st and 2nd Peter are outright forgeries.[5] Once the false attributions are laid aside, there are no writings about Jesus that can be traced either to an original apostle or to an eyewitness. Paul is a near contemporary to Jesus’ life, however, he never saw or knew Jesus during his life and ministry. Moreover, Paul’s letters, while they deal with Jesus, are very sparse about the biographical details of his life and are primarily absorbed in theological concerns.[6]
Next, this apologetic provides a list of supposedly “early” Christian writers:

Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum.[7]

This list represents a large number of ancient writers, but what this apologetic fails to specify is that most of these authors’ writings date to the 2nd century CE, around a century after Jesus’ death. They are so late that they provide little independent information, and mostly make use of the above 1st century sources (or even less reliable later traditions). Playing telephone with previously problematic information does nothing to improve historical accuracy.
The next bit is a list of ‘heretical’ authors who mention Jesus. We would prefer that Licona use a more neutral term like “apocryphal.” Here are the four that are listed:

Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, and Treatise on Resurrection.[8]

Even apologists acknowledge that these sources are unreliable (though, modern scholars think that there may be a few historical sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas). Likewise these apocryphal sources, in many instances, contradict the authors of the New Testament. More telephone, divergence, and “heretical” accounts does not improve the historical evidence.
So far we have only received a catalog of late Christian authors, which this apologetic misleadingly represents as early, reliable sources. But the apologetic’s next list of 9 ‘secular’ sources for Jesus is highly questionable. To start with, the term ‘secular’ is misleading, since these are really just ‘Pagan’ authors. But what is more noteworthy is that many of these authors never directly mention Jesus. Here is the list provided:

Josephus (Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (Roman politician), Phlegon (freed slave who wrote histories), Lucian (Greek satirist), Celsus (Roman philosopher), Mara Bar Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution), Suetonius, and Thallus.[9]

First off, Phlegon is an author who may have written in the 2nd century CE, most of whose works are lost. References to his lost works only survive in quotations of later authors, one of which is a quote from Julius Africanus (a lost 3rd century source), which itself is preserved in a second quote from the 9th century author Syncellus (that’s right, a quote of a quote seven centuries later!). After all this word of mouth Africanus claims that Phlegon made a reference to the three hour darkness at Jesus’ execution, described in Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:33, and Lk. 23:44. Phlegon’s quote, however, is preserved verbatim in Eusebius where no connection to Jesus is made. Instead, Phlegon merely refers to an eclipse during Tiberius’ reign. There is another possible quote, unrelated to the eclipse, in Origen (Against Celsus 2.14) where Phlegon supposedly wrote about Jesus, but his words are not preserved verbatim, so it is difficult to ascertain. Regardless, Phlegon cannot be used as a source for the darkness at Jesus’ execution and his quote may completely undermine Thallus as a source.
Thallus, like Phlegon, is a lost historian who only survives in later quotations and whose date is largely uncertain, but he probably wrote during the 2nd century CE. None of the later quotations of his works that include his own words mention Jesus. Instead another quote of Africanus, who does not record Thallus’ own words, claims that Thallus also wrote about the great darkness at Jesus’ execution, but once more this is only preserved by the 9th century author Syncellus. Given Africanus’ previous error, where he claimed that Phlegon wrote about Jesus, when his actual words did not, it is highly likely that Africanus misrepresented Thallus as well (there is also the possibility that Eusebius anonymously quotes Thallus in his Chronicle where no reference to Jesus is made in regard to the Tiberian eclipse). Lacking Thallus’ works or even a quotation of his own words that mentions Jesus, he cannot accurately be regarded as “an account that now exists concerning Jesus,” like Habermas and Licona claim, and thus including his name on the list is misleading.[10]
Next, Mara Bar Serapion was a stoic philosopher whose dating has been disputed among scholars, but who may have written from the late-1st to the 3rd century CE (the latter of which dates would place him outside of the 150 year window). Serapion wrote a letter in Syriac that mentions in passing an anonymous “wise king of the Jews.” The letter does not refer to Jesus by name and can only be interpreted to allude to him. Nevertheless, some recent scholarship in the Mara Bar Serapion Project has favored a date in the late-1st century and has also favored the interpretation that the “wise king” is probably an allusion to Jesus.[11] This conclusion would actually make Bar-Serapion the earliest Pagan to reference Jesus. However, the letter tells us nothing more than what is already known from the New Testament, namely that Jesus was a teacher who was executed (which Bar-Serapion compares with the killings of Pythagoras and Socrates). Furthermore, Bar-Serapion probably had no direct knowledge of Jesus, but instead only knew of him due to Christian preaching in Syria. As the Mara Bar Serapion Project explains, “Mara was not a crypto-Christian of the first century … Nor does the letter constitute an anti-Jewish Christian pseudepigraphon of the 3rd-4th century … More likely we are dealing with an early instance of the Pagan reaction to Christian preaching in Syria.” This means that Bar-Serapion is probably not an independent source for Jesus, and regardless his allusion is vague at best.
Suetonius’ passage, likewise, cannot be said to refer to Jesus with any certainty. The only mention that might plausibly allude to Jesus is a two word ablative absolute in his Life of Claudius which states that, impulsore Chresto (“with a Chrestus instigating,” 25.4) the emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome in 49 CE. “Chrestus” was not Jesus’ name, nor is it the Latin word for “Christ,” which is “Christus.” Likewise, “Chrestus” by itself is an attested name from antiquity meaning “good” or “useful.” Accordingly, it could very likely be the case that Suetonius’ reference to a “Chrestus” simply refers to the name of another Jew. Moreover, this refers to an event nearly two decades after Jesus was dead, even though the passage seems to imply that Chrestus was alive in 49 CE.  As Classicist Barbara Levick concludes, “The precise cause of the expulsion remains obscure.”[12] Suetonius also explicitly refers to Christianity as a religion later in his Life of Nero (16.2) without drawing any connection between the Christians and this “Chrestus.” Suetonius’ reference is thus far too dubious to be considered an “account” for Jesus, and thus it was rash to include it on the list.
Next we have Josephus from the late 1st century CE, who has one passage (AJ 20.9.1) that may refer to Jesus and his brother James, but has also been argued to refer to another Jesus (the high priest) and James, the sons of Damneus (which calls into dispute its supposed reference to the Christian Jesus).[13] The more famous passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum (AJ 18.3.3) shows considerable signs of later forgery, making it either completely forged, or partially forged but still containing considerable alterations.[14] Those qualifiers in place, it is fair to say that most scholars agree that Josephus probably preserves some reference to Jesus (and his brother James); however, since there is serious dispute about Josephus’ authenticity, he can only be regarded as a “disputed” source. Assuming that Josephus’ reference in the Testimonium Flavianum is partially authentic, Josephus discusses Jesus in the context of describing the “tribe of the Christians, so called after him” that “has still to this day not disappeared,” meaning that Josephus’ information about Jesus probably comes from Christians that he knew in his own day (calling into question Josephus’ status as an independent source).
Then there are Tacitus, Lucian, Pliny, and Celsus (all of whom are writing much, much later in the 2nd century CE). Pliny’s (Ep. 10.96-97) testimony can only dubiously be counted as an “account” for Jesus, since he only states that Christians worship a “Christ” figure, as if a god, and does not connect this figure to a historical person. Josephus (if his partially or fully forged passage can be trusted), Tacitus (Ann. 15.44), and Lucian (The Passing of Peregrinus) only mention Jesus in the context of Christianity as a contemporary religious movement and furnish very few biographical details about his life. Celsus is a hilarious author whose lost work partially survives in quotations of the 3rd century theologian Origen. Celsus barely makes the 150 year window by writing c. 177 CE. His work The True Word is the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity, which includes hysterical remarks such as Jesus lying about his mother Mary’s virginity and actually being the bastard son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. It is a great read that we recommend for Monty Python: Life of Brian movie nights.
Well, there you have the so called “42 sources for Jesus,” a list that includes 3 disputed authors (Thallus, Suetonius, and Josephus), 2 indirect and vague allusions (Bar-Serapion and Pliny the Younger), and mostly records late authors who either furnish little to no reliable details about Jesus, or are problematic sources for interpretive reasons (such as the canonical Gospels). We will let the dubious references slide, since we will see that even with these embellishments Tiberius still has more than 42 sources! Paul is the only source that can be said to be a near contemporary of Jesus, but he provides too few biographical details about Jesus to ascertain much that is substantial. Much of what we have refuted in this section should be known to many skeptics already. In the next section, we are going to demonstrate how Habermas and Licona fail to accurately record the available sources for Tiberius.
(2) The 42:10 Ratio Is Flatly Inaccurate about the Literary Sources for Tiberius, which Actually Comes Out to 42:44.
Not only does this apologetic fail to mention all the authors who write about Tiberius 150 years within his lifetime, but it fails to mention three quarters of them! Here is the very incomplete list that is provided:

Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Seneca, Paterculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Valerius Maximus, and Luke.[15]

It took me (Ferguson) only a few minutes to track down authors that the 42:10 source ratio had missed: The contemporary poet Horace (writing c. 21 BCE) mentions Tiberius multiple times and even writes to a military friend campaigning with Tiberius in the 3rd letter of book 1 of his Epistles. Another contemporary, Cornelius Nepos, also mentions Tiberius’ first marriage in his Life of Atticus (19). The poet Ovid (c. 13 CE) discusses Tiberius multiple times in book 2 of his Epistulae Ex Ponto. Livy’s history of Rome, though the books dealing with the time of Tiberius are lost, still have book summaries preserved in the later Periochae. A number of the later books, such as 138 dealing with Tiberius’ military campaigns under Augustus, provide yet another contemporary source for Tiberius. Likewise, another contemporary historian, Aufidius Bassus, wrote a history of the reign of Augustus down to his own day, which included the reign of Tiberius. While Bassus’ work is lost, a fragment remains that discusses Tiberius’ political achievements during the year 8 BCE, which was probably published during Tiberius’ lifetime. There is also Apollonides of Nicaea, a Greek grammarian from the early-1st century CE, whom the biographer Diogenes Laertius (9.12) records dedicated a work titled On the Silli to Tiberius. Since Apollonides probably dedicated this work during Tiberius’ reign, he is another source for Tiberius during his lifetime.
Habermas and Licona mention Seneca (presumably the Younger) on their list, but a reference survives to the contemporary Seneca the Elder’s (c. 38-39 CE) lost historical work in Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius (73.2) where the Elder Seneca writes about Tiberius’ death. Philo of Alexandria (c. 39-40 CE) mentions Tiberius’s recent death multiple times in his Embassy to Gaius. These are both references that date to only a couple years after Tiberius’ death.
The list grows larger for later 1st century sources: The fabulist Phaedrus (c. 45 CE), who wrote Latin versions of Aesop’s fables, likewise writes a humorous tale about Tiberius and an attendant in his Aesopica. Scribonius Largus (c. 47 CE) writes about Tiberius in his Compositions (97.1), as does Columella (c. 65 CE) in book 11 of his De Re Rustica. A very obscure source for Tiberius that survives is a certain “Deculo,” whom Pliny the Elder (HN 35.70) records wrote about a painting that Tiberius hung in his bedroom, which cost 600,000 sesterces. Nothing is known of this Deculo outside of Pliny’s writings, but since the Elder Pliny died in 79 CE, Deculo must have written sometime in the 1st century CE. Quintilian (95 CE) also writes about Tiberius in book 3 of his Institutio Oratoria, and Frontinus (c. 100 CE) makes an obscure, but nevertheless solid reference to Tiberius in book 1 of his On the Water Supply of Rome. Authors from the 2nd century CE are also missing from this apologetic’s role call: the Roman satirist Juvenal (c. 120 CE) mentions Tiberius’ praetorian prefect Sejanus and a “Caesar on Capri” that indisputably refers to Tiberius in book 10 of his Satires. Likewise, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (c. 167 CE) is missing who briefly mentions Tiberius in book 12 of his Meditations. Vettius Valens (c. 175 CE) also records astrological details about Tiberius’ reign in book 1 of his Anthology. Cornelius Fronto (c. 175 CE) likewise mentions the library in Tiberius’ palace in book 4 of his Epistles, and the grammarian Aulus Gellius also mentions Tiberius’ library in book 13 of his Attic Nights (horribly obscure references, but they still include Tiberius’ name!). Licona includes the Gospel of Luke in his list, since it refers to the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign as the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry (3:1). However, apparently this only counts his praenomen “Tiberius.” Tiberius had also received the adopted cognomen “Caesar.” Who is the Gospel of John referring to when the Jews cry, “We have no king but Caesar!” (19:15)? Whose face is on the coin when Mark and Matthew write, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mk.12:17; Mt. 22:21)? If Pliny’s vague reference to a “Christ,” which was never Jesus’ name but only a title, can be counted as an “account” for Jesus, then surely these references to a “Caesar,” which is part of Tiberius’ name and also a title used to refer to the Roman emperor, can at least count as vague sources for Tiberius. Therefore, the other Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and John — also count as texts that allude to Tiberius within 150 years of his life and ones whom Licona fails to record. There are a number of authors that this apologetic counts for Jesus, but fails to mention also wrote about Tiberius! The apologetic counts Pliny the Younger’s vague reference to a “Christ,” but fails to mention that the Younger Pliny clearly discusses Tiberius in book 5 of his Epistles in his letter to Titius Aristo. Lucian is listed as a source for Jesus, but it is ignored that the Macrobii (“Long Lives”), which is attributed to Lucian, also mentions Tiberius. Although modern scholars now doubt that Lucian was the actual author of the Macrobiithere are still good reasons to think that this text preserves a 2nd century reference to Tiberius. Not only does the text make no reference to events after the 2nd century CE, but likewise the text makes no reference to the death of the philosopher Demonax (c. 170 CE), who allegedly lived about a hundred years, which would be very odd for a work dedicated to discussing people who lived very long lives. This provides adequate enough grounds for dating the Macrobii to before 170 CE, which puts it within the 150 year window.
The apologetic even misses important Christian sources that mention Tiberius. Justin the Martyr is counted for Jesus, but it is not pointed out that he also mentions Tiberius in his First Apology. Likewise, Theophilus of Antioch is counted for Jesus, but his reference to Tiberius in book 3 of To Autolycus is not includedThe apologetic even fails to connect the dots when Phlegon and Thallus are counted as sources for Jesus, because they mention an eclipse during the reign of Tiberius, that these references include Tiberius Caesar! So the apologetic is not even checking its own sources! Phlegon likewise records in book 13 of his On Marvels that Apollonius the Grammarian wrote about Tiberius, which is also not included.
What about Tiberius himself? Unlike Jesus, Tiberius was certainly literate and a number of his letters are preserved in fragments within the works of both Tacitus and Suetonius. In addition, Suetonius even makes clear in his Life of Tiberius that Tiberius wrote memoirs that he used when constructing his biography (61.1). Thus, Tiberius himself also counts as a source for his own life and existence. How about Tiberius’ stepfather Augustus? Suetonius likewise quotes a number of letters written by Augustus addressed to Tiberius, which likewise count as sources for Tiberius’ life. How about Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus? Furthermore, the historian Tacitus (Ann4.53) preserves a fragment of the memoirs of Agrippina the Younger, Tiberius’ great-niece, where she also relates information about Tiberius. A speech of Tiberius’ other nephew, the emperor Claudius, is likewise recorded in Tacitus and preserved on the bronze Lyon Tablet that mentions Tiberius. Thus, within Tiberius’ own family we have Augustus, Claudius, and Agrippina the Younger as sources for him, in addition to Tiberius himself.
Another source is the Latin astrologer Manilius (c. 14 CE), who dedicated his Astronomica to a “Caesar” who could either be Tiberius or Augustus. Even if it is Tiberius’ adopted father Augustus, imagine how ecstatic apologists would be if a poem survived dedicated to Jesus’ adopted father Joseph. Beyond the dedication, most scholars agree that there is a reference to Tiberius in book 4, lines 764-6 of the Astronomica, as well as references to Tiberius’ horoscope.
There are a couple references to Tiberius that are dubious, but still provide plausible sources for his life. One source is a little known poem titled the Aratus, which is attributed to Tiberius’ nephew and adopted son Germanicus. Since the poem is dedicated to the author’s genitor (“father” or “adopted father”), if the attribution to Germanicus is correct, then this poem is a contemporary source dedicated to Tiberius. There is also a possible fragment of the Roman historian M. Servilius Nonianus preserved, which discusses an incident during Tiberius’ reign. Since Nonianus died in 59 CE, this would be another source for Tiberius within 25 years of the emperor’s life. There is also the Greek geographer Pausanias (c. 170 CE) who mentions in book 8 of his Descriptions of Greece that a “Roman emperor” constructed a channel near Antioch, whom scholars speculate was probably Tiberius. This reference is not 100% solid, but Tiberius was a “Roman emperor,” which is a more literal description than Mara Bar-Serapion’s “wise king of the Jews” being taken as a reference to Jesus, as Jesus was never a king.
Apart from these literary examples, at least three very extensive inscriptions survive. These inscriptions (much larger than other smaller inscriptions from the same period) are extensive enough to be considered their own narratives, in that they not only contain complete paragraphs, sentences, and clauses, but also have distinct openings and closings of narration. In content, they thus preserve as much information on stone as medieval codices preserve in writing (in addition to not having to rely on medieval textual transmission). The Res Gestae and the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone were both published during the reign of Tiberius and refer to Tiberius specifically, and the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, which was produced c. 69-70 CE, likewise refers to the powers that had been bequeathed to Tiberius by the Senate. The Senatus Consultum, written in the name of the Senate, even includes a smaller subsection that was written specifically by Tiberius’ sua manu (“own hand”). Apologists would kill for such extensive inscriptions to be recorded about Jesus during his lifetime (and would probably mention them in their statistic if they had existed), but yet this apologetic fails to include these important sources for Tiberius.
Since Augustus is the putative author of the Res Gestae (even though it was published after his lifetime), and since Augustus’ letters to Tiberius are listed above, it may be double-counting to include the Res Gestae as an additional source; however, the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone and the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani are definitely additional sources that should be included in this list.
All totaled, Licona missed approximately 39 sources for Tiberius within 150 years of his life:

  1. Horace
  2. Ovid
  3. Cornelius Nepos
  4. Livy
  5. Aufidius Bassus
  6. Apollonides of Nicaea
  7. Seneca the Elder
  8. Philo of Alexandria
  9. Phaedrus
  10. Columella
  11. Scribonius Largus
  12. Deculo
  13. Quintilian
  14. Frontinus
  15. Juvenal
  16. Marcus Aurelius
  17. Vettius Valens
  18. Cornelius Fronto
  19. Aulus Gellius
  20. The Gospel attributed to Matthew
  21. The Gospel attributed to Mark
  22. The Gospel attributed to John
  23. Pliny the Younger
  24. Pseudo-Lucian
  25. Justin the Martyr
  26. Theophilus of Antioch
  27. Phlegon
  28. Thallus
  29. Apollonius the Grammarian
  30. Tiberius himself
  31. Augustus
  32. Germanicus
  33. Claudius
  34. Agrippina the Younger
  35. Manilius
  36. M. Servilius Nonianus
  37. Pausanias
  38. The Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone
  39. The Lex de Imperio Vespasiani

These are all of the additional sources that we have been able to find for Tiberius, but it should be noted that there may be even more sources that we have missed. We noted above that there are 3 disputed sources (Thallus, Suetonius, and Josephus) and 2 vague sources (Bar-Serapion and Pliny the Younger) for Jesus. To be consistent, the same consideration for Tiberius should apply, as there are 3 disputable sources (Germanicus, Servilius Nonianus, and Pausanias) and 3 vague sources (the Gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew, and John) for Tiberius. This brings the total tally for Jesus to 37-42 and for Tiberius to 43-49.
If one drops the 6 disputable or vague sources for Tiberius within 150 years of his life, this apologetic still only manages to account for 10 out of 43 of the total literary sources. That is an accuracy rate of only 23%. It should also be noted that even the low estimate of sources for Tiberius is still greater than the high estimate for Jesus. So, even with literary sources alone, Tiberius still wins!
(3) The 42:10 Ratio Stretches the Window of Time to Skew the Results.
One hundred and fifty years is a long time. Has anyone started to wonder at this point: why did Habermas and Licona choose such a large time span as 150 years for the window of authors? Would our writing this year (2015 CE) count as an independent “source” for Abraham Lincoln (1865 CE), just because we are within a 150 years of his life? The large window of time skews the results. Tiberius was a well-known politician in his own day, but as time goes on people forget old politicians in place of new ones. In contrast, Jesus became a religious figure who was revered and immortalized by a world religion. Consider an analogy with Joseph Smith. Most of us today are familiar with Joseph Smith over 150 years after his death, but how many are familiar with his contemporary U.S. president John Tyler?
That being said, historians prefer early, eyewitness, and contemporary sources to later, second-hand, and dubious ones. Let’s readjust our window of time. How many authors mention Tiberius during his actual lifetime (42 BCE — 37 CE) compared to how many mention Jesus during his lifetime (c. 7 BCE-7 CE — 26-36 CE)? When you readjust the numbers to actual contemporary authors, there are at least 14 accounts that record Tiberius during his actual lifetime:

Horace, Ovid, Cornelius Nepos, Livy, Aufidius Bassus, Apollonides of Nicaea, Strabo, Vallerius Maximus, Paterculus, Tiberius himself, Augustus, Germanicus, Manilius, , and the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone

Many of these are direct eyewitnesses, and Paterculus is an actual historian who fought under Tiberius and records his life and military campaigns at length. In contrast, what is the number of contemporary authors who mention Jesus? Absolutely zero. That’s right, when you readjust the number to actual contemporaries, it comes out to a 14:0 ratio in favor of Tiberius. So, whenever you hear an apologist spout the “42:10” ratio, first remind them that the real number is 42:49, then remind them that the number for actual contemporaries is 0:14.
What about if we expand the window to near contemporaries? Say authors who wrote within 25 years of Tiberius and Jesus’ lifetime? For Tiberius, this adds:

Seneca the Elder, Philo of Alexandria, Seneca the Younger, Phaedrus, Scribonius Largus, Servilius Nonianus, Claudius, and Agrippina the Younger

For Jesus, this adds:

The Apostle Paul

Therefore, even for near contemporaries, the ratio comes out to 22:1 in favor of Tiberius, with Jesus being left with only one source, who is not an eyewitness. Overwhelmingly, there is an abundance of either contemporary or early reliable sources for Tiberius, whereas Jesus has no contemporary sources and very little early attestation. Readjusting the window of time puts in perspective just how strong the source material is for Tiberius in comparison to Jesus.
It also never occurs to Licona (or Geisler and Turek) to ask why so many late sources for Jesus survive. Was there really more written about Jesus later in antiquity than Tiberius? Hardly. What really has happened is that more sources for Jesus were preserved through the Christian-dominated Middle Ages. As Reynolds and Wilson explain about medieval textual transmission, “Education and the care of books were rapidly passing into the hands of the Church, and the Christians of this period had little time for Pagan literature.”[16] And likewise Reynolds and Wilson point out, “There can be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.”[17] Accordingly, the only reason why more texts mentioning Tiberius have not been preserved is because of a sample bias and a bottleneck of Pagan texts that perished during the Middle Ages. Despite this, an overwhelmingly larger number of early sources survive for Tiberius compared to a mere paucity for Jesus, and, even in the stretched out 150 year window, Tiberius is still more attested.
(4) The 42:10 Source Ratio Ignores Epigraphical Evidence.
Up until now we have been primarily focused on Licona’s list of authors. We think it is safe to say at this point that this number has been utterly discredited. But let’s look further into a related claim: how the evidence for the historicity of Jesus compares to the evidence for the historicity of Tiberius. In the words of one apologist, “If one is going to doubt the existence of Jesus, one must also reject the existence of Tiberius Caesar.”[18] Similarly, Geisler and Turek seem to make an even stronger claim, namely, that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is better than the evidence for the mere existence of Tiberius.

As we have seen, Jesus is referenced by far more authors than the Roman emperor at the time (Jesus’ 43 authors to Tiberius’s 10 within 150 years of their lives). Nine of those authors were eyewitnesses or contemporaries of the events, and they wrote 27 documents, the majority of which mention or imply the Resurrection. That’s more than enough to establish historicity. (###)

Let’s consider some other types of historical evidence besides literary sources and see how much we would know about Tiberius even if all his literary sources disappeared.
Epigraphy is the study of ancient inscriptions in stone. We have already mentioned Claudius’ Lyon Tablet, the Res Gestae , the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone, and the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, which are inscriptions long enough to be considered their own narratives. However, there are countless other contemporary inscriptions that name Tiberius on dedications, plaques, and really more locations than we could ever possibly name. Current databases and collections for Greek and Latin inscriptions are incomplete and often difficult to access, but one of the authors (Ferguson) ran a search for Latin inscriptions that include “Tiberius Caesar” on Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss, which yielded 152 results. The vast majority of these inscriptions refer to the emperor Tiberius (a few refer to other people than Tiberius) and date to within his reign and lifetime. Mind you, this is just the tip of the iceberg! This is not even a search that includes Greek inscriptions and there are other prosopographies, such as Victor Erenberg’s Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius,[19] which include even more documentary sources.
To our knowledge, there is not a single inscription that mentions Jesus during his lifetime. In epigraphy, the ratio that would come out for Tiberius versus Jesus would be well above the realm of 100+:0.
(5) The 42:10 Source Ratio Ignores Papyrological Evidence.
We have already mentioned that the literary sources we have from antiquity come down primarily in medieval manuscripts. However, in more arid regions of the Mediterranean (particularly southern Egypt) documents from antiquity itself survive written on papyri. Papyrology is the study of such documents. We see no reason why texts preserved in medieval manuscripts should count as sources in Habermas and Licona’s statistic but papyrological sources should not.
Most papyri are rough drafts of letters, scrap notes, receipts, accounting documents, and other incidentals. Nevertheless, as we previously saw in the Gospel of Luke, the conventional method of dating in antiquity was to list the year of the current emperor’s reign. Accordingly, many of the papyri that include dates mention Tiberius’ name. One of the authors (Ferguson) ran a search on APIS (Advanced Papyrological Information System) for papyri dating to the years of Tiberius’ reign (14 CE – 37 CE) that include the name “Tiberius.” The search yielded 106 results. The vast majority of these papyrological references refer to the emperor Tiberius (granted, a few refer to other people named Tiberius). In fact, one of these papyri may plausibly be a letter from Tiberius himself to Egyptian tax collectors. Other valuable papyri about Tiberius can be found with even simple Google searches.[20]
To our knowledge there is not a single papyrus dating to Jesus’ lifetime that mentions him. Granted, we do have historically unreliable papyri that mention Jesus centuries later (along with a lot of apocryphal gems, such as Jesus having a twin brother). However, if we compare the ratio of solely contemporary papyrological sources it is ~100:0 in favor of Tiberius versus Jesus.
(6) The 42:10 Ratio Ignores Numismatic Evidence.
Numismatics is the study of ancient currency. During the Roman Empire, ancient coins were minted with the emperor’s name and face on them. Accordingly, there are countless coins scattered throughout the Mediterranean that mention Tiberius’ name and brandish his face.
Now, to be fair, we would not expect an obscure Galilean like Jesus to have coins minted of himself (granted Alexander of Abonoteichus, another ancient prophetic figure living c. 105-170 CE, managed to pull it off for the snake-god of his cult). That being said, we only bring this up to address the claim, made by other Christian apologists: “If one is going to doubt the existence of Jesus, one must also reject the existence of Tiberius Caesar.” If all other forms of evidence suddenly vanished and we were only left with ancient currency, we would still have contemporary evidence for Tiberius and none for Jesus. One more point for Tiberius.
(7) The 42:10 Ratio Ignores Archaeological Evidence.
There are a number of archaeological sites around the Mediterranean that can be directly and reliably linked to Tiberius. Fortunately, I (Ferguson) have had the opportunity to visit Tiberius’ palace in the Roman forum, his villa at Sperlonga, and one of his villas on Capri.
Now, there are a number of traditional sites attributed to Jesus, but virtually all of these are just later fabrications. For example, Jesus has two locations in Jerusalem that are supposed to be his empty tomb: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb (both of which I [Ferguson] visited during the summer of 2012). However, we are not aware of any archaeological site that can be directly connected to Jesus. That being said, Jesus is recorded to have visited general locations like the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount, which is certainly plausible. We do not claim that this is the strongest argument, but there are archaeological sites which were directly owned by Tiberius and reflect his architectural tastes. In contrast, we have nothing like this for Jesus. So at the end of the day it is just another way that we know more about Tiberius than Jesus.
We also have artifacts that can be linked to Tiberius, such as multiple busts and statues of the emperor that were produced during his reign. We have no such image for Jesus, nor do we even have a physical description of what he looks like. Admittedly, the countless statues we now have of Tiberius were idealized and are not fully accurate portraits, and simply because no physical description or image of Jesus exists does not prove his non-existence (he was a poor person who probably had no busts or statues made of him to begin with), but this is just yet another way we have more information about Tiberius than Jesus.
(8) Not All Historical Sources Are Equal.
A point that should not be forgotten in stacking all these numbers is that not all pieces of evidence are equal. Merely providing lists of authors, like Licona did, creates the illusion that all sources are equal. But would one expect 100 issues of the National Enquirer to be more reliable than a single history book? We have already seen that many of the sources for Tiberius were written either during or much closer to his life, whereas Jesus’ are distant second, third, and fourth generation accounts.
But beyond this, we also have more reliable sources for Tiberius that provide much more historical information about his life than what is available Jesus. Paterculus is a contemporary, eyewitness historian who records Tiberius’ military campaigns, Tacitus has 6 books in his Annals that document Tiberius’ reign on a chronological basis, and Suetonius wrote a historical biography of him. In contrast, no contemporary historian documents Jesus and the much later historians who do mention him only do so in tiny quips that furnish little to no details about his life. Instead, our primary source material for Jesus is Paul’s epistles, which mostly treat with theology rather than history, and the Gospels, which are hagiographies comprised of symbolism, oral traditions, and parables. To sum it up, we have earlier, fuller, and more reliable historical sources for Tiberius, whereas for Jesus we have late, ahistorical, historically-questionable, and less reliable religious texts.
(9) Chronologically, Whose Life Can We Reconstruct Better: Tiberius or Jesus?
To provide an illustration of just how much more we know about Tiberius than Jesus, we thought it would be helpful to map out their lives in a chronology. After all, if we have a lot of historical information, shouldn’t we be able to plot it out on a timeline?
For the chronology of Jesus, there are considerable problems in assigning any precise dates or years to events in his life. To begin with, the Gospel of Matthew places Jesus’ birth before the death of King Herod in 4 BCE, but Luke states that Jesus was born during the Census of Quirinius, which took place in 6/7 CE. As historian E.P. Sanders explains:

Possibly because there were riots after Herod’s death in 4 BCE and also at the time of the census in 6 CE, Luke has conflated the two times. This a relatively slight historical error for an ancient author who worked without archives, or even a standard calendar, and who wrote about a period some eighty or so years earlier. The most likely explanation of Luke’s account is this: he or his source accidentally combined 4 BCE (Herod’s death) and 6 CE (Quirinius’ census); having ‘discovered’ the event so that it became a reason for Joseph to travel from his home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. In any case, Luke’s real source for the view that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was certainly the conviction that Jesus fulfilled a hope that someday a descendant of David would arise to save Israel.[21]

Sanders’ last point about the expectation that the Jewish Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is likewise noteworthy. It is very clear that both Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth were influenced by their narrative goals of depicting Jesus as a descendant of King David. As Sanders elaborates:

The birth narratives constitute an extreme case. Matthew and Luke used them to place Jesus in salvation history. It seems that they had very little historical information about Jesus’ birth (historical in our sense), and so they went to one of their other sources, Jewish scripture. There is no other substantial part of the gospels that depends so heavily on the theory that information about David and Moses may simply be transferred to the story of Jesus.[22]

These problems only allow for broad date ranges in estimating the year of Jesus’ birth (for a refutation of apologetic attempts to harmonize the nativity stories between Matthew and Luke, see Carrier’s “The Date of the Nativity in Luke”). On a wide range, the Gospels place Jesus’ birth anywhere from a couple years before Herod’s death (7-4 BCE) to the Census of Quirinius (6/7 CE). However, scholars have also favored a more narrow range of dates between these broader reference points. As Sanders explains:

Most scholars, I among them, think that the decisive fact is that Matthew dates Jesus’ birth at about the time Herod the Great died. This was in the year 4 BCE, and so Jesus born in that year or shortly before it; some scholars prefer 5, 6, or even 7 BCE.[23]

This allows for a narrow range of dating Jesus’ birth between 7-4 BCE. Dating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is likewise problematic. Luke (3:1) states that John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (29 CE), and implies that Jesus began his ministry not long after (29-30 CE). However, Sanders cautions:

This, however, is only an estimate. Luke did not write that Jesus started precisely one year after John. Moreover, we do not know how long Jesus’ ministry lasted. Consequently, Luke’s information cannot tell us when Jesus died.[24]

Dating Jesus’ death raises further problems. As with Jesus’ birth, both broad and narrow estimates can be provided. Regarding broad estimation, Sanders notes:

When Jesus was executed, Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (26-36 CE) and Caiaphas was high priest (18-36 CE) … These dates lead to the conclusion that Jesus died between 26 to 36 CE. This broad range is based on ‘big pieces’ of information. Tiberius, Pilate, and Caiaphas: everybody in Palestine knew those three names and during what period of time they held their respective offices.[25]

So, in a broad sense, Jesus’ death can be placed between the years 26-36 CE. However, it is fair to say that most scholars have favored a narrower range between these dates. Sanders concludes:

Taking into account Luke’s dating of the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, the period of Pilate’s administration, and the evidence derived from the chronology of Paul, most scholars are content to say that Jesus was executed sometime between 29 and 33 CE.[26]

With the cumulative analysis discussed above, the “broad range” of Jesus’ chronology may be calculated as follows:

Date Event
7-4 BCE — 6-7 CE Jesus is born
29-30 CE Jesus begins his ministry
26-36 CE Jesus is crucified

Table 2. Broad Chronology of Jesus

From this wider estimate, scholars have tended to favor a more “narrow range” of chronology with the following years:

Date Event
4 BCE – 7 CE Jesus is born
29 CE Jesus begins his ministry
30 CE – 33 CE Jesus is crucified

Table 3. Narrow Chronology of Jesus

In contrast, with Tiberius we have reliable historical sources that furnish not only accurate years, but even specific days! In fact, the amount of information we can know about, such as when Tiberius assumed specific offices, visited various provinces, and other precise details, is so abundant that we had to cut out a lot of material from his chronology. It should also be noted that, unlike in the case for Jesus, there is no serious scholarly dispute about these dates, making them even more authoritative. Here is a greatly abridged chronology taken from Robin Seager’s Tiberius.[27]

Date Event
November 16th, 42 BCE Tiberius is born
40 BCE The infant Tiberius escapes the siege of Perusia
33 BCE Tiberius’ father dies
27 BCE Tiberius assumes the toga virilis
20 BCE Tiberius marries Vipsania
11 BCE Tiberius divorces Vipsania
12 BCE Tiberius marries Julia
6 BCE – 2 CE Tiberius’ retirement at Rhodes
4CE Tiberius is adopted by Augustus
September 17, 14 CE Tiberius assumes the principate
19 CE Death of Tiberius’ nephew and heir Germanicus
23 CE Death of Tiberius’ son Drusus
27 CE Tiberius retires to Capri
29 CE Death of Tiberius’ mother Livia
October 18th, 31 CE Tiberius executes his praetorian prefect Sejanus
March 16th, 37 CE Tiberius dies

Table 4. Chronology of Tiberius

The contrast between these charts is drastic. For Jesus the few events we can even plot require broad date ranges, whereas for Tiberius we have not only a reliable year-by-year breakdown but even specific dates. Tiberius’ whole life is well documented in ancient sources and accessible chronologically, whereas Jesus’ is buried in obscurity. The charts above speak for themselves on just how much more we know about Tiberius than Jesus.
(10) At the End of the Day, Whom Do We Know More About?
In spinning their 43:10 source ratio, Geisler and Turek probably did not realize what a wasp’s hive they had stumbled upon. Their argument raised an important question: how much can we historically know about Jesus versus well-known figures from antiquity?
Upon investigation of Geisler’s and Turek’s source—Licona’s 42:10 ratio—it is clear that Licona strained the number of authors who allegedly wrote about Jesus, including dubious references, such as Suetonius, and authors who make no direct reference to Jesus, such as Thallus. Licona missed at least 39 narrative accounts that mention Tiberius within 150 years of his life. When you re-crunch the numbers for Tiberius, the ratio of sources for Tiberius versus Jesus comes out to 49:43. Furthermore, the flawed statistic had to stretch out the date range to an extreme 150 years in order to skew the numbers in favor of late Christian authors. When analyzing contemporary sources during Tiberius and Jesus’ own lifetime, 14 sources document Tiberius and a whopping 0 account for Jesus.
The total score card for the evidence for the historicity of Jesus compared to the evidence for the historicity of Tiberius is summarized below.

Type of Evidence Tiberius Jesus
Literary Sources Within Actual Lifetime 14 0
Literary Sources Within 25 Years 22 1
Literary Sources within 150 Years 43-49 sources 37-42 sources
Epigraphical Evidence 100+ 0
Papyrological Evidence ~100 0
Numismatic Evidence countless 0
Unique Archaeological Sites 3 0
Archaeological Artifacts countless 0
Major Life Events Recorded in Chronology at least 16 at best 3

Table 4

We reiterate that the paucity of sources does not necessarily imply Jesus’ non-existence. Tons of real, anonymous people lived in antiquity who receive no source attestation and are historically lost. Nevertheless, the scarcity of early, reliable sources for Jesus does make the details of his life obscure, embellished, and irretrievable to history. The Jesus that people believe in today, pray to, and discuss in church is a later theological fabrication, hopelessly divorced from the distant, ambiguous historical Jesus of the past.
Arguing, as Geisler and Turek did, that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is better than the evidence for the historicity of an established historical figure such as the emperor Tiberius is a catastrophically absurd comparison. Tiberius is attested by a mountain of evidence: multiple contemporary literary sources, countless inscriptions, dozens of papyri that date to his reign, coins bearing his face scattered throughout the Mediterranean, archeological remains, statues modeled during his lifetime, and a retrievable chronology that can document important events in nearly every year of his life. We are sure that many of our readers after reading this chapter have probably learned way more about the emperor Tiberius than they ever knew before! The mountain of evidence for Tiberius eclipses the small anthill for Jesus’ resurrection by a ratio that is beyond quantifying in a trivial, over-simplified slogan of the sort that apologists like Geisler and Turek are fond of.
Apologetic arguments of this sort often remind us of a tabloid newspaper described in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead:

The Banner was permitted to strain truth, taste and credibility, but not its readers’ brain power. Its enormous headlines, glaring pictures and oversimplified text hit the senses and entered men’s consciousness without any necessity for an intermediary process of reason, like food shot through the rectum, requiring no digestion.

The rhetorical games that apologists likewise spin in an effort to buttress belief in their religion are no different. Apologists like Geisler and Turek tout how ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist than a Christian,’ but then throw out oversimplified lines like the 43:10 source ratio. When analyzed, however, this claim (about ancient history) is no more reliable than the 9/11 conspiracy theories are (in the field of structural engineering) or monster questing is (in biology). People are free to believe Jesus rose from the on the basis of faith, but pretending that this faith is rooted in historical evidence superior to that of the historicity of Tiberius is yet another instance of what I (Lowder) called “obnoxious apologetics” in the introduction of this rebuttal.
One final point: in response to one of the authors (Ferguson), Licona graciously and publicly admitted in 2013 that the 42:10 source ratio is false.[28] Geisler and Turek should do the same.
Regarding (b) the historicity of Jesus, while the previous section should make it clear that we dispute various parts of Geisler’s and Turek’s extra-Biblical case for the historicity of Jesus, we are going to let that pass. We join Geisler and Turek in affirming the historicity of Jesus, i.e., that Jesus actually existed.
Regarding (c) the consistency of extra-Biblical sources with the NT’s chronology, this point is multiply flawed. First, it seems rather one-sided to argue that extra-Biblical agreements with the specific parts of the NT’s chronology is evidence favoring the NT’s chronology and not consider whether various extra-Biblical disagreements with (and silences about) other parts of the NT’s chronology is evidence againstthose parts. Consider, for example, the various purported references to Jesus in the Jewish Talmud. The Baraitha contains a passage which describes hanging ‘Yeshu’ on the eve of Passover.

On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defence come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defence and hanged him on the eve of Passover. (italics ours)

If this passage refers to Jesus, it contradicts the NT. Not only does it describe Yeshu as practicing “sorcery,” but it says Yeshu was hanged, not crucified.
Geisler and Turek also gloss over the silence of extra-Biblical sources regarding various NT claims. For example, extra-Biblical sources are silent regarding the “darkness and earthquake” which allegedly occurred when Jesus is died. This silence is more probable on the hypothesis that the darkness and earthquake never happened than it is on the hypothesis that the darkness and earthquake happened but no extra-Biblical sources mentioned it.
Another example would be the silence of non-Christian writers concerning both alleged sightings of Jesus alive again after his death, as well as Christian claims of such sightings. The fact that non-Christian writers are silent on both points is more probable on the hypothesis that Jesus was never seen alive after his death than it is on the assumption that Jesus was seen alive after his death.
In short, Geisler and Turek have, once again, created the appearance of an overwhelming case for their position (in this case, the historical accuracy of the NT’s chronology of Jesus) only by understating the evidence. Once that evidence is fully stated, however, it’s far from obvious it confirms the most important parts of the NT stories about Jesus.
A second problem with Geisler’s and Turek’s appeal to the “consistency” of extra-Biblical sources with the New Testament is this. Geisler and Turek assume are silent about the accuracy and independence of extra-Biblical sources. Everything else held equal, if an extra- Biblical source is often inaccurate, the fact that such a source is ‘consistent’ with the NT isn’t a strong point in favor of the NT’s historicity. Similarly, even if an extra-Biblical source is often accurate, if that source is secondhand, dependent upon one or more of the NT documents, that weakens, if not nullifies, whatever value the extra- Biblical source might have had as independent confirmation of the NT.
Finally, regarding (d) that non-Christian sources report that the disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead,  we agree with Geisler and Turek.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 128. In the body of the text, we refer to Licona only, since Licona claims that Habermas was not responsible for the part of that book which mentions the 42:10 ratio.
[2] Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
[3] Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
[4] Matthew Wade Ferguson, “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels”
[5] See NT scholar Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (###: HarperOne, 2011).
[6] See Ehrman’s article “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?”,
[7] Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
[8] Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
[9] Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
[10] For more information about how there is no outside corroboration of the darkness at Jesus’ execution, despite being an even that would have been documented worldwide, here is a valuable article from ancient historian Richard Carrier:
[12] Barbara Levick, Claudius (Yale University Press, 1993), 122.
[13] See Richard Carrier’s “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200” (Journal of Early Christian Studies, v. 20, 2012).
[14] I (Lowder) defend the partial authenticity of the passage in my chapter “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable?” The Jury Is In: The Ruling on McDowell’s Evidence (May 15, 2000),
[15] Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
[16] L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (4th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 80.
[17] Reynolds and Wilson, 48.
[18] E.g., Ryan Turner, “Did Jesus Ever Exist?” Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (, n.d.
[19] Victor Erenberg, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).
[20] E.g.,
[21] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 87.
[22] Sanders 1995, 88.
[23] Sanders 1995, 11.
[24] Sanders 1995, 282.
[25] Sanders 1995, 54.
[26] Sanders 1995, 283.
[27] Robin Seager, Tiberius (2nd ed., New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), xiii-xvi.

bookmark_borderGeisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8

Chapter 8. Miracles: Signs of God or Gullibility?

As I read them, Geisler and Turek (G&T) seek to establish four points: (1) If God exists, then miracles are possible; (2) Hume’s argument against the credibility of miracle claims is a failure; (3) miracles can be used to confirm a message from God (i.e., as acts of God to confirm a word from God); and (4) we don’t observe Biblical-quality miracles today because such miracles are not needed to confirm a new revelation from God.
(1) The Possibility of Miracles and Legends: As Geisler and Turek rightly argue, if God exists, then miracles are possible. Furthermore, Spinoza’s pantheistic objection to the possibility of miracles fails. There’s nothing here I want to dispute. Indeed, I want to expand their point. As New Testament scholar Robert M. Price asks, “If miracles are possible, are legends impossible?”[1] If some skeptics are guilty of an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism (and so rule out even the possibility of miracles), some Christians are guilty of an a priori commitment to Biblical inerrancy (and so rule out the even possibility of errors in the Biblical miracle stories). But both sides are wrong: miracles and legends are possible. The lesson to be learned here is that we should try to avoid a priori commitments per se and instead look honestly at the evidence.[2]
One Evangelical Christian scholar who looked honestly at the historical evidence about Biblical miracles is Michael Licona. Licona is the author of the 700-page book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.[3] While Licona defends the resurrection of Jesus, he proposes that the story of the resurrection of the saints described in Matthew 27 just might be metaphorical rather than literal history. To his credit, Licona did not allow the potential implications of his commitment to Biblical inerrancy to get in the way. While some Evangelical scholars, such as Paul Copan and Craig Blomberg, rallied to Licona’s defense, others were highly critical. As reported by Christianity Today,[4] other evangelical scholars, most notably Norman Geisler, publicly accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of the Bible. As a direct result, Licona lost two jobs. Not only did he lose his job as research professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary, but he was also ousted as apologetics coordinator for the North American Missions Board (NAMB).
In light of what can only be described as Geisler’s instrumental role in getting Licona fired (twice!) for following the historical evidence wherever Licona thought it leads, skeptics can hardly be blamed for questioning Geisler’s open-mindedness when it comes to evaluating the historical evidence about alleged Biblical miracles.
(2) Hume’s Argument Against the Credibility of Miracle Claims: Even if miracles are possible, it doesn’t follow that they are probable. Geisler and Turek know this and so they consider one objection against the credibility of miracles: Dave Hume’s famous argument against miracles. Following Geisler’s reconstruction of Hume’s argument, Geisler summarizes his critique, originally delivered at Harvard University’s divinity school: (i) Hume confuses believability with possibility; (ii) Hume confuses probability with evidence; and (iii) Hume, without justification, makes it impossible to have sufficient evidence for rare events (205-08).
(a) The Nomological Evidence Argument (against Miracles): Since I have no interest in defending Hume, I shall ignore Geisler’s critique.[5] Instead, I want to present my own argument for the prior improbability of miracles. I call this argument the Nomological Evidence Argument; its name is derived from the Greek word nomos, which means “law.” The argument is not called the “Nomological Argument,” however, since the focus of the argument is not the laws per se, but the evidence for the laws.
Following Geisler and Turek, let’s define a “natural law” as a description of “what happens regularly, by natural causes” and a “miracle” as a description of “what happens rarely, by supernatural causes” (201). The basic idea of the Nomological Evidence Argument is not that the natural laws themselves are evidence against miracles; rather, the evidence for the laws of nature is evidence against the occurrence of miracles. For example, all of our observations and other evidence for the law of gravity is evidence against Superman flying through the air. Similarly, all of our observations and other evidence for the laws of statistical mechanics is evidence for the complete post-mortem decomposition of Jesus’ body and hence evidence against Jesus’ resurrection.[6] In this sense, then, the evidence for the laws of nature is evidence against the occurrence of miracles. We can generalize these points into a simple inductive argument against miracles according to the following schema:

For any law of nature L, the vast majority of relevant observatons (O) has been such that God did not will that events happen contrary to L.

Therefore, prior to investigation, the (epistemic) probability that the next O will be consistent with L is high.

While even many theists would admit that the above argument follows from the definition of “miracle,” Geisler and Turek might object. Allow me to consider some potential objections.
The Naturalistic Fallacy Objection: This argument confuses believability with possibility (207).
Reply: The whole point of the argument is probability (and hence, in Geisler’s and Turek’s terms, “believability”); it says nothing about possibility. As an objection to the Nomological Evidence Argument, this objection commits the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy, by falsely accusing the defender of the Nomological Evidence Argument of committing the naturalistic fallacy, viz., presupposing that naturalism is true.[7] Even if a defender of this argument were a ‘committed’ metaphysical naturalist, however, it doesn’t follow that the argument presupposes that naturalism is true. In fact, this argument is logically compatible with the assumption that God exists and that we know God exists with certainty. It could be the case that God exists and, for whatever reason, God often wills that all or almost all Os are consistent with L. Rather than assuming that miracles cannot occur, this argument presents defeasible, prima facie evidence that God, for whatever reason, often wills that miracles do not occur.
The Irrelevance Objection: The argument confuses probability with evidence. Prior probabilities are irrelevant to assessing whether miracles have actually happened.[8]
Reply: This objection is itself based upon a confusion, for the Nomological Evidence Argument is solely about the prior probability of miracles. The argument says nothing about the final (or posterior) probability of any given miracle. In any case, using Bayes’s Theorem, we can mathematically prove that final probability is determined by multiplying prior probability and likelihood (i.e., how likely the evidence is to obtain, on the assumption the miracle actually happened). So assessing the prior probability of miracles is not only appropriate, but necessary for a proper assessment of their overall (final) probability.
The Extreme Skepticism Objection: The argument makes it impossible to have sufficient evidence for rare events.
Reply: This is false. First, since the final probability is the product of prior probability and likelihood, we can have sufficient evidence for rare events if the likelihood is sufficiently high. Second, there is another, technical reason why this objection fails, a reason which will probably only be of interest to philosophers. I’ll mention it briefly. This objection presupposes a frequentist interpretation of probability, whereby probability means relative frequency.[9] But that’s not the only definition of probability. According to an epistemic interpretation of probability, probability means “degree of belief.” The epistemic interpretation makes it possible to have a high probability (i.e., high degree of belief) for rare events.
The Divine Interference Objection: The argument confuses the probability of miracles, which are by definition supernatural events, with the probability of unusual natural events. It only shows that miracles as natural events have low prior probabilities. It does not show that miracles as supernatural events have low prior probabilities. Therefore, the evidence for natural laws provides no evidence at all against God’s intervention in natural affairs.[10]
Reply: Consider the following hypothetical conversation between Christi, a Christian, and Skep, a skeptic.

Christi: Jesus walked on water.

Skep: What’s the evidence for that?

Christi: The report in Matthew 14:22-33.

Skep: That’s pretty weak evidence for a miracle.  Besides, the evidence for gravity is evidence against that miracle ever occurring.

Christi: You’re confused about the nature of the miracle claim.

Skep: What do you mean?

Christi: The claim of Matthew 14:22-33 is that Jesus supernaturally walked on water. It is not the claim that Jesus walked naturally on water. That Jesus walked naturally on water is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think it is improbable that God enabled Jesus to walk on water.[11]

Skep:  All of the evidence in which natural laws provide an accurate description of natural affairs are “ipso facto cases in which an external agent (i.e., God) has not intervened in natural affairs” and hence cases where God has not willed a miracle. So the observed frequency of non-miracles “automatically factors in the frequency with which external agents (e.g., God)” will that miracles do not occur. [12]

Christi: But the only antecedent factor that is relevant for a miracle is whether He wills for a miracle to happen. If God wills a miracle to happen, then there is a 100% chance it will occur.[13]

Skep: I agree that if God wills a miracle to happen it must happen. But that does not refute the Nomological Evidence Argument; it supports it. The empirical evidence—the extremely high observed frequency of non-miracles—shows that God  “has an exceptionally strong tendency not to supernaturally intervene in natural affairs.”[14] Therefore, the prior probability that God would will a miracle is “astronomically low.”[15]

The Free Will Objection: Whatever the probabilities are, God is free to choose otherwise.
Reply: This objection fails for essentially the same reason as the previous objection. Yes, God, if He exists, can will that a miracle occur “anytime He wants” (216). The observational-relative frequency of non-miracles shows that God has an extremely weak tendency to will that miracles occur. It is beyond reasonable doubt that, prior to investigation, the evidence we have for any law of nature L is at least some evidence against God’s miraculous intervention contrary to L. But this entails that miracles have a low prior probability, conditional upon the evidence for natural laws, which serves as the relevant background information.
In sum, then, Geisler and Turek are able to create the appearance that “disbelief in miracles is probably more a matter of the will than of the mind” (209) only by ignoring arguments other than Hume’s. The Nomological Evidence Argument isn’t dependent upon Hume’s argument, however.  Furthermore, mining Geisler’s and Turek’s material for other potential objections turned out to provide no good reason to reject the Nomological Evidence Argument. Geisler and Turek are going to need to come up with bettter arguments for the credibility of miracles if they are going to answer contemporary skeptics.
(3) Miracles as Authenticated Messages from God: As I read them, G&T make two points. (i) On the assumption that theism is true, we should expect that God would “reveal more of himself and his purpose for our lives”(200). (ii) Miracles provide a way to confirm that such revelations are “message[s] from God” (201).
Regarding (i), I’m inclined to agree with Geisler and Turek that theism provides us with reasons to expect that God would reveal His existence and His purpose for our lives. It isn’t obvious, however, why God would need to use a miracle to reveal His existence and purpose, as opposed to some other, mundane alternative.
Furthermore, the theistic expectation that God would reveal His existence and purpose is a double-edged sword for theism; it raises the “problem of divine hiddenness” and associated arguments for atheism. For now, I will mention two. First, if a perfectly loving God exists, then why are there reasonable nonbelievers? As J.L. Schellenberg has argued, this fact implies atheism.[16] Second, in addition to the general fact of divine hiddenness, the more specific fact that God is silent about His purpose(s) for creating humans is evidence favoring atheism over theism.[17]
As for (ii), Geisler and Turek present a very interesting discussion of six different categories of unusual events: anomalies, magic, psychosomatic, Satanic signs, providence, and miracles (210). Overall, I agree with what I consider to be Geisler’s and Turek’s most important point (albeit one they didn’t state in quite this way), namely, that there’s a difference between an unusual event and a bona fide miracle; in order to establish that a miracle has occurred, one has to do more than show that a mere anomaly has taken place.
In his book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, David J. Hand describes what he calls the “Improbability Principle,” a set of laws of chance which, together, tell us that

extremely improbable events are commonplace. It’s a consequence of more fundamental laws, which all tie together to lead inevitably and inexorably to the occurrence of such extraordinarily unlikely events. These laws, in principle, tell us that the universe is in fact constructed so that these coincidences are unavoidable: the extraordinarily unlikely must happen; events of vanishingly small probability will occur. The Improbability Principle resolves the apparent contradiction between the sheer unlikeliness of such events, and the fact that they nevertheless keep on happening.[18]

(4) The Lack of Biblical-Quality Miracles Today: Finally, Geisler and Turek seek to respond to a common objection to Biblical miracles: “If there are no public, biblical-quality miracles happening today (and if they were, they’d be on the Fox News Channel), then why should I think they happened in the past?” (215).
According to Geisler and Turek, most of the Bible’s 250 miracles occurred

in very small windows of history, during three distinct time periods—during the lifetimes of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the apostles. Why then? Because those were the times when God was confirming new truth (revelation) and new messengers with that truth. (216)

They speculate that, “if the Bible is true and complete,” then God may not have a reason to perform miracles today because God is not confirming any revelation today (216).
Speculative as it is, this “What If?” explanation amounts to a quasi-theodicy, viz., an attempt to offer a theistic explanation for potential evidence against theism.[19]  I agree with Geisler and Turek that their explanation is logically possible; the fact that Biblical-quality miracles do not happen today does not contradict or disprove the historicity of Biblical miracles.
But Geisler and Turek ignore a philosophically more interesting question, namely, “Is the lack of contemporary Biblical-quality miracles evidence favoring naturalism over theism?” It seems to me that the answer is very likely, “Yes.” If metaphysical naturalism is true, then there are no supernatural beings to perform miracles. Thus, metaphysical naturalism entails that there would be no Biblical-quality miracles today. In contrast, if theism is true, miracles are, at the very least, possible. (And note that this is true even if Geisler and Turek are correct that Christian theism provides very little or no antecedent reason to expect Biblical-quality miracles today.) Thus, if there are indeed no Biblical-quality miracles today, that is more probable on naturalism than on theism and hence evidence for naturalism and against theism.
Summary and Conclusion

  1. Both miracles and legends are possible. If some skeptics are guilty of an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism (and so rule out even the possibility of miracles), some Christians are guilty of an a priori commitment to Biblical inerrancy (and so rule out even the possibility of errors in the Biblical miracle stories).  We should try to avoid a priori commitments per se and instead look honestly at the evidence.
  2. Both nontheists and theists alike have good reason—a reason not based on Hume—to be skeptical of an alleged miracle prior to an empirical investigation. This reason is the Nomological Evidence Argument, which states that the evidence for natural laws is defeasible, prima facie evidence against alleged miracles. This argument does not presuppose naturalism; on the contrary, it is logically consistent with the presupposition that God exists and that we know God exists with certainty.
  3. In this chapter, we read about three new lines of evidence (or potential evidence) for metaphysical naturalism and against theism: (i) the reasonableness of nonbelief (i.e., nontheism); (ii) God’s silence about His purpose(s) for creating humans; and (iii) the fact (if it is a fact) that there are no Biblical-quality miracles occuring today. Each of these three lines of evidence are more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true and so are evidence against theism and for naturalism.


Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] Robert M. Price, “By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus” The Secular Web (1997),
[2] It is noteworthy that this philosopher of religion lists Geisler’s book, When Critics Ask, as one of several books which contain just-sostories to explain away indicators of errors in the Bible.
[3] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010).
[4] Bobby Ross, Jr., “Interpretation Sparks a Grave Theology Debate” Christianity Today (, November 7, 2011.
[5] For a technical critique of Hume’s argument, see John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). For a defense of Hume against Earman’s critique, see Peter Millican, “Hume, Miracles, and Probabilities: Meeting Earman’s (July-August 2003), Cf. Elliott Sober, “A Modest ProposalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research 118 (2004): 489-96.
[6] Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti, “The Great Mars Hill Resurrection Debate” The Secular Web (2013),, 316-21.
[7] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 15.
[8] Norman L. Geisler, “A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), ed. Robert Price and Jeffrey [sic] Lowder” Dr. Norman L. Geisler (n.d.),
[9] See, e.g., “Frequentist Probability” Wikipedia,
[10] I owe the name of this objection to Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti 2013, slide 15.
[11] Cf. William Lane Craig’s similar objection to skeptics who claim that the resurrection of Jesus has a low prior probability, as stated in several of his debates, e.g., his debate with Bart Ehrman.
[12] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 271.
[13] Geisler n.d.
[14] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 103.
[15] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 105.
[16] J.L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1993, 2006).
[17] B.A. Trisel, “God’s Silence as an Epistemological ConcernThe Philosophical Forum 43 (2012): 383-393. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9191.2012.00433.x.
[18] David J. Hand, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 5.
[19] I call this a “quasi-theodicy” and not a “theodicy” since the word “theodicy” is normally used only in the context of arguments from evil. The (alleged) lack of contemporary, Biblical-quality miracles is not a species of the genus known as arguments from evil, however.

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 6: Chapter 7

Chapter 7. Mother Theresa vs. Hitler

In this chapter, G&T present a version of the moral argument for God’s existence which I call the “Moral Laws Require a Moral Lawgiver Argument,” which they formulate as follows.

1. Every law has a law giver.
2. There is a Moral Law.

3. Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver.

Like the earlier arguments, this argument is deductively valid. Like the earlier chapters about this argument, I plan to briefly summarize G&T’s defense of this argument before offering my critique.
(i) Moral Laws, Lawgivers, and Obligations: For the most part, G&T defend premise 1 through the use of simplistic slogans, such as “every prescription has a prescriber” (170) and “there can be no legislation unless there’s a legislature” (171). The most charitable interpretation of G&T’s appeal to these slogans is that these slogans function as arguments from analogy. But the analogies with the Moral Law are weak. “Laws” require a “lawgiver” only if they are, in fact, given (made). Statutory (governmental) laws are the paradigm example of laws that require a lawgiver, but, to use one of William Lane Craig’s trademark expressions, statutory laws (“legislation”) began to exist. Not all laws are made, however. The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics are three examples of laws that are discovered, not invented. Not only do these examples undercut the support for premise (1), they actually provide the basis of an argument from analogy against premise 1, based on the following negative analogy.

4. The laws of nature, logic, mathematics, and morality did not begin to exist.
5. The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics also do not have lawgivers.

6. Therefore, the laws of morality do not have a lawgiver.

This entails, accordingly, that premise 1 is false.
G&T’s second supporting argument for premise 1 implicitly appeals to what’s known as a “social theory of obligation.”[1] That G&T make this appeal isn’t obvious, so I first need to defend that interpretation before addressing it. Although they don’t use the phrase, “social theory of obligation,” they do argue, “if there are moral obligations, there must be someone to be obligated to” (171).  That argument presupposes a social theory of obligation, which holds that “obligations” are made in the context of a relationship between persons in which a demand is made. Thus, I think the most charitable interpretation of this statement is to treat it as a second supporting argument for premise 1.
I’m inclined to agree with G&T that obligation is inherently social, but notice there is a difference between individual obligations and the concept of obligation itself. Thus, let us distinguish between (a) the source of obligation in general; and (b) the source of specific obligations.
Regarding (a), the important question, a question that J.L. Mackie asked, but that most defenders of divine command theories of moral obligation have ignored, is how obligation in general could be created by the commands of any person (including God).[2] Let us suppose that God exists and commands us to perform action A. God’s commandment to perform A could make A morally obligatory if and only if there were a prior moral obligation to obey God’s commands. But if there is a prior moral obligation to obey God’s commands, then that entails the existence of at least one autonomous moral obligation. It follows, then, that God is not the source of all moral obligations. Thus, as a potential explanation for all moral obligation, the appeal to divine commands reduces to “The reason there are moral obligations is because there is at least one true moral obligation,” which is no explanation at all. At best, this explanation merely describes the relation between religious moral obligations (i.e., obligations based on God’s commands) and an autonomous, secular moral obligation (i.e., an obligation which is not based on God’s commands). We’re still left with the prior obligation to obey God’s commands, an obligation which cannot be justified by God’s commands. So the appeal to divine commands does not explain the deeper issue of why there are any moral obligations at all. This blatant circularity renders God’s commands worthless as an explanation for moral obligation in general.
As for (b), individual obligations are created by persons, but the obligations need not be the result of conscious acts by those persons. If the relevant prior obligation exists, then a person can create an obligation through a conscious act like commanding. For example, if God exists and has commanded that humans observe the Sabbath, then that command creates a further moral obligation because of the prior obligation to obey God’s commands. Or again, to pick a secular example, if a parent tells a child to take out the garbage, then that command creates a further moral obligation because of the prior obligation children have to obey reasonable requests made by their parents.
But other obligations do not seem to be the kind of obligations which need to be commanded. One example is the prior obligation to obey God’s commands, despite the fact that no person created that obligation. Another example would be the prima facie moral obligations which parents have to their children, despite the fact that infants obviously cannot command anything. These examples show that the source of obligations can be relational (i.e., grounded in a personal relationship) but not dependent upon a conscious act. This also explains why impersonal objects—what G&T call “materials” such as atoms, molecules, and other physical particles—cannot be the source of obligations. Obligations cannot come from an impersonal universe, but it doesn’t follow that there are no obligations in an impersonal universe.
In sum, if even one moral obligation can exist without God, then there’s no reason to think that most moral obligations can’t exist without God.
(ii) The Existence of a Moral Law: G&T offer eight reasons in support of the Moral Law: (1) the Moral Law is undeniable; (2) we know it by our reactions; (3) it is the basis of human rights; (4) it is the unchanging standard of justice; (5) it defines a real difference between moral positions (e.g., Mother Theresa vs. Hitler); (6) since we know what’s absolutely wrong, there must be an absolute moral standard of goodness; (7) the Moral Law is the grounds for political and social dissent; and (8) if there were no Moral Law, then we wouldn’t make excuses for violating it.
While there are various points of detail in G&T’s case for the Moral Law’s existence I would dispute, I’m going to skip over them. I agree with their overall point that what they call the “Moral Law” exists.
(iii) Confusions about Absolute vs. Relative Morality: G&T identify and address what they call six “confusions” about absolute morals: (1) absolute morals vs. changing behavior; (2) absolute morals vs. changing perceptions of the facts; (3) absolute morals vs. applying them to particular situations; (4) an absolute command (what) vs. a relative culture (how); (5) absolute morals vs. moral disagreements; and (6) absolute ends (values) vs. relative means.
I’m not sure that there is much to argue with here. Like their defense of the Moral Law, there are various minor points I could make but, again, I’m going to let them pass. I agree that, as they stand, many objections to the Moral Law are weak because they confuse various distinctions.
(iv) ‘Darwinist’ Explanations of the Moral Law: G&T offer a multi-pronged critique of E.O. Wilson’s Darwinian explanation for the evolution of a moral sense. (1) The Moral Law is immaterial and so cannot be reduced to matter. (2) Morality cannot be merely an instinct. (3) Darwinism cannot explain self-destructive or altruistic behaviors. (4) There can be no “real good without the objective Moral Law” (188). (5) Darwinists confuse moral epistemology (how one comes to know the Moral Law) with moral ontology (the existence of the Moral Law). (6) “Darwinists cannot explain why anyone should obey any biologically derived ‘moral sentiment’” (188).
Following prominent moral philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, let’s divide moral theory into two branches: substantive ethics and metaethics. Substantive ethics is probably what the average nonphilosopher has in mind when thinking about “morality;” it has to do with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong, and so forth.  Metaethics is literally “about ethics,” in the sense that it is focused on the nature of substantive moral claims. Sinnott-Armstrong has identified six branches of metaethics, shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Of those six branches, three are relevant to various moral arguments for God’s existence. First, moral ontology “asks whether any moral properties and facts exist and, if so, what metaphysical status they have.”[3] Second, moral epistemology “concerns roughly whether, when, and how substantive moral claims and beliefs can be justified or known.”[4] Finally, third, moral psychology “asks about the nature and sources of moral beliefs and moral emotions, such as guilt and shame, as well as about our motivation to be moral.”[5]

Corresponding to these three branches of metaethics are three types of moral phenomena which are sometimes claimed as evidence for God’s existence.

Branch of Metaethics Fact to be Explained
Moral Ontology Moral Values, Moral Law, Moral Obligations
Moral Epistemology Moral Beliefs
Moral Psychology Moral Emotions (such as guilt, shame, obligation)

G&T’s moral argument is an argument about moral ontology. Wilson’s sociobiological explanation for morality is about moral psychology and epistemology. It follows, therefore, that objections (1), (2), (4) and especially (5) are irrelevant. (5) is particularly heinous since Wilson wasn’t even trying to explain moral ontology.
Let’s turn our attention to (3), the objection that  Darwinism cannot explain self-destructive or altruistic behaviors. In fact, as Paul Draper argues, Darwinian naturalism offers a much better explanation for the distribution of self-centered and selfless behaviors among human beings.[6]
In order to see why that is so, let’s begin with the fact that humans are effectively self-centered; our tendency to behave in self-centered ways is usually much stronger than any tendency to behave in selfless ways. Next, let’s divide altruistic behaviors into two types: kin altruism and non-kin altruism.
On Darwinian naturalism, the mixture of selfish and selfless (altruistic) behaviors we find in Homo sapiens is easy to explain.  The Darwinian naturalist explanation for our overwhelming tendency towards self-centered behavior is obvious. Kin altruism is also easy to explain: behaviors that promote the survival and reproduction of my kin make it more probable that my genes will be inherited by future generations. Non-kin altruism is weaker than kin altruism and also absent more often than kin altruism. Given that kin altruism exists, this pattern or distribution is exactly what we would expect on Darwinian naturalism.
With theism, however, things are quite different. On theism, either God created humans directly (special creation) or indirectly (Darwinian theism or theistic evolution).  Since God is omnipotent and omniscient, He could create humans without making them inherently self-centered. Since God is morally perfect, He would have good moral reasons for creating altruistic humans. Furthermore, He would not create inherently self-centered humans unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. So given that humans are inherently self-centered, theism entails both that God is not constrained by biological goals like survival and reproduction (and hence does not need to create human beings who are inherently self-centered) and that He had a morally sufficient reason for creating inherently self-centered human beings.
While that is a logical possibility—it doesn’t disprove theism—that’s also a really big coincidence that Darwinian naturalism doesn’t need. The distribution of selfish and selfless behaviors among human beings is much more probable on naturalism than on theism. Therefore, that distribution is strong evidence favoring naturalism over theism.
Finally, what about G&T’s sixth objection, that  “Darwinists cannot explain why anyone should obey any biologically derived ‘moral sentiment’” (188)? There is much to be said about this topic, too much to address here. Instead, I will simply make one point: I think G&T are being uncharitable to the idea of “biologically derived moral sentiments.” G&T are saying that if contemplating a certain action, such as bestiality, causes a person to feel disgust, that feeling of disgust provides no reason at all for the person to avoid bestiality. But that’s false.  The desire to avoid the emotions of guilt, shame, and disgust are often powerful motivators. If G&T disagree, then I invite them to attempt to do something they find disgusting! They will quickly discover that their feeling of disgust does, indeed, provide a reason for not doing an action.
(v) The ‘Consequences’ of Darwinist Morality: According to G&T, Darwinist morality implies that the following are morally permissible: (1) racism and genocide; (2) infanticide; (3) using “retarded” people as laboratory subjects or food; and (4) rape. G&T support the claim that each of these alleged implications is an actual implication of Darwinist morality by appeals to authority.
I will make some general comments regarding this section as a whole before addressing each of these alleged consequences of Darwinist morality.
Some General Comments:
First, G&T, like many (but not all) theists who engage in moral apologetics, misuse the word “implication.” In logic, to say, “X implies Y,” means that Y is true whenever X is true. A corollary of this point is this: if it is possible for Y to be true when X is not, then X doesn’t imply Y. As a professional philosopher, Geisler is surely aware of this point, but he (inexplicably) seems to forget it when he (and Turek) repeatedly refer to what they call the “consequences,” “implications,” or “logical outworkings” of Darwinism. Each of their claims regarding the alleged “implication” of Darwinist morality is refuted by this simple point. If atheism is true, the Holocaust, infanticide, the abuse of the mentally disabled, and rape can still be morally bad. Since that is even possible, it follows that none of those things are “implications” of atheism.
Second, contrary to frequent claims in moral apologetics, atheism is neither moral nor immoral; rather, it is amoral. By itself, atheism does not make it obligatory, permitted, or forbidden to do anything. It’s neither a (substantive) ethical theory nor a metaethical theory.[7]
Third, in order to justify their claim that “Darwinism” has such outrageous moral consequences, G&T rely upon a series of arguments from authority. Again, as we saw earlier, arguments from authority can be logically correct (inductive) arguments in some circumstances, such as (a) the argument correctly quotes and interprets the authority; and (b) there are no equally qualified authorities who disagree with the authority quoted by the argument. As we shall see below, however, each of their arguments from authority fails to satisfy these requirements. It follows, therefore, that none of their arguments from authority make their conclusions probable: they fail to establish that “Darwinism” has the moral implications which G&T claim that Darwinism has.
Regarding (1) (racism and genocide), G&T quote the following passage from Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf:

If nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such cases all her efforts, throughout hundreds of thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile.
But such a preservation goes hand-in-hand with the inexorable law that it is the strongest and the best who must triumph and that they have the right to endure. He who would live must fight. He who does not wish to fight in this world, where permanent struggle is the law of life, has not the right to exist.[8]

Based on this passage, G&T conclude that “Adolf Hitler used Darwin’s theory as philosophical justification for the Holocaust” (189).
This example is multiply flawed, however. First, remember that G&T define “Darwinism” as a belief in impersonal, unguided evolution. In the passage just quoted, however, Hitler talks about nature’s “wishes.” Since the idea of nature (or Nature) as a conscious being with “wishes” and “efforts” is incompatible with Darwinism, this passage contradicts the claim that Hitler was a Darwinist, much less someone who subscribed to ‘Darwinist morality.’
Second, in the passage quoted above, Hitler commits the is-ought fallacy, viz., by moving from exclusively non-ethical premises to an ethical conclusion.[9] In its logical form, Hitler’s argument may be summarized as follows.

All living things are engaged in a struggle for survival; only the fittest survive. [non-ethical premise]

Therefore, it is right to allow the strongest to survive and wrong to allow the weakest to survive. [ethical conclusion]

This argument is deductively invalid, however. Its conclusion does not follow from its (sole) premise.
Third, Hitler (and his racist followers) were (and are) factually incorrect. A key part of his argument is the presupposition that some human races are ‘superior’ to others. Not only is that presupposition false, but notice that it does not follow from evolution, much less Darwinism.
Fourth, as an argument from authority, G&T’s appeal to Hitler is logically incorrect. If we abbreviate the conclusion of Hitler’s argument as G, then the logical form of G&T’s corresponding argument from authority is as follows.

(5) The vast majority of statements made by Adolph Hitler concerning metaethics are true.
(6) G is a statement made by Adolph Hitler about metaethics.

(7) Therefore, G is true.

Even if Hitler had been an authority on metaethics, this argument would fail because all or virtually all competent authorities disagree. But Adolph Hitler was not an authority on metaethics. So G&T’s argument from authority is evidentially worthless: it provides no evidence at all—nada, zero, zilch, zip—for the claim that “Darwinist morality implies that racism and genocide are ethically right.”
Regarding (2) (infanticide), G&T quote moral philosopher Peter Singer’s statement, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”[10] G&T then go on to argue that a consequence “of Singer’s outrageous Darwinian ideas” is infanticide: “He believes that parents should be able to kill their newborn infants until they are 28 days of age!” (190).
This argument is only marginally better than the last. G&T’s quotation of Singer fails to establish the conclusion that “Darwinist morality implies that infanticide is morally right or permissible.” (a) While Singer is an authority on moral philosophy, this argument from authority fails because equally competent authorities, including Darwinists such as James Rachels, disagree. (b) G&T commit the is-ought fallacy by moving from an exclusively non-ethical premise (“Darwinism is true”) to an ethical conclusion (“infanticide is morally right or permissible”).
Reading (3) (the moral status of the mentally disabled), G&T reach this remarkable conclusion by quoting the late moral philosopher James Rachels. Here is what G&T write (190):

Speaking of retarded people, Rachels writes:

What are we to say about them? The natural conclusion, according to the doctrine we are considering [Darwinism], would be that their status is that of mere animals. And perhaps we should go on to conclude that they may be used as non-human animals are used–perhaps as laboratory subjects, or as food?22

As horrific as that would be–using retarded people as lab rats or food–Darwinists can give no moral reason why we ought not use any human being in that fashion.

22 James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 186.

Suffice it to say that G&T nowhere say or even hint at the fact that Rachels opposed the very view which G&T attempt to saddle Darwinism with.
As someone who has read Rachels’ important book several times, I am baffled how G&T could possibly justify this outrageous, slanderous interpretation of Rachels. First, notice the bracketed word [Darwinism]. Rachels was not considering the doctrine of ‘Darwinism’ at this point in his book. Rather, he was talking about the doctrine of “qualified speciesism.” Here is how Rachels defines it.

But there is a more sophisticated view of the relation between morality and species, and it is this view that defenders of traditional morality have most often adopted. On this view, species alone is not regarded as morally significant. However, species-membership is correlated with other differences that are significant. The interests of humans are said to be more important, not simply because they are human, but because humans have morally relevant characteristics that other animals lack.[11]

With that definition in mind, let’s review what Rachels actually wrote about qualified speciesism.

There is still another problem for this form of qualified speciesism. Some unfortunate humans—perhaps because they have suffered brain damage—are not rational agents. What are we to say about them? The natural conclusion, according to the doctrine we are considering, would be that their status is that of mere animals. And perhaps we should go on to conclude that they may be used as non-human animals are used–perhaps as laboratory subjects, or as food?[12]

This leads to my second objection to G&T’s quotation of Rachels. Not only was Rachels talking about qualified speciesism, not Darwinism, but Rachels was describing a problem with qualified speciesism. In other words, Rachels was arguing against qualified speciesism. There is simply no justification for G&T trying to saddle Rachels with a view he explicitly calls a “problem” and, in fact, rejects.
A few pages later, Rachels goes on to make a distinction between “having a moral obligation” and “being the beneficiary of a moral obligation.” In his words:

… we must distinguish the conditions necessary for having a moral obligation from the conditions necessary for being the beneficiary of a moral obligation.
For example: normal adult humans have the obligation not to torture one another. What characteristics make it possible for a person to have this obligation? For one thing, he must be able to understand what torture is, and he must be capable of recognizing that it is wrong. (Linguistic capacity might be relevant here; without language one may not be able to formulate the belief that torture is wrong.) When someone–a severely retarded person, perhaps–lacks such capacities, we do not think he has such obligations and we do not hold him responsible for what he does. On the other hand, it is a very different question what characteristics qualify someone to be the beneficiary of the obligation. It is wrong [to] torture someone–someone is the beneficiary of our obligation not to torture–not because of his capacity for understanding what torture is, or for recognizing that it is morally wrong, but simply because of his capacity for experiencing pain. Thus a person may lack the characteristics necessary for having a certain obligation, and yet may still possess the characteristics necessary to qualify him as the beneficiary of that obligation. If there is any doubt, consider the position of severely retarded persons. A severely retarded person may not be able to understand what torture is, or see it as wrong, and yet still be able to suffer pain. So we who are not retarded have an obligation not to torture him, even though he cannot have a similar obligation not to torture us.[13]

The above passage proves that Rachels was opposed to “using retarded people as lab rats or food,” the exact opposite of the picture painted by G&T’s selective, misleading quotation of Rachels. In fact, rather than “downgrading” the moral status of mentally disabled humans to that of animals without rights, Rachels went in the opposite direction by “upgrading” the moral status of intelligent animals so that they, like even severely mentally disabled humans, can be the beneficiary of moral obligations.
At this point, I can only come up with two explanations for why G&T would do this: either they’re ignorant (they didn’t read or understand the book) or they’re dishonest (they knew full well that Rachels was talking about limited speciesism, not Darwinism, and Rachels opposed using the mentally disabled as lab rats or food). Neither of these explanations reflects well upon G&T.
Regarding (4) (rape), Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer wrote a controversial book, A Natural History of Rape. G&T apparently haven’t read the book, for instead of quoting it directly, they quote Nancy Pearcey’s quotation of Thornhill and Palmer. Pearcey quotes the following passage: rape is “a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage,” just like “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.”[14] G&T are, once again, committing the is-ought fallacy. The argument seems to be this.

If Darwinism is true, then rape has a biological explanation. [non-ethical premise]

Therefore, if Darwinism is true, then rape is ethically right or permissible. [ethical conclusion]

Like the previous arguments, this one is fallacious. The fact, if it is a fact, that rape has a biological explanation does not ‘imply’ that rape is ethically right or permissible. And it’s far from obvious that rape has a biological explanation. Again, if Pearcey’s quotation of Thornhill and Palmer is supposed to be an argument from authority, that argument is weak. First, if G&T are suggesting that Thornhill and Palmer believe that rape is morally acceptable, the former have misinterpreted the latter. As Pearcey explains, “The authors are not saying that rape is morally right.”[15] Second, as Pearcey’s own article admits, equally well qualified authorities disagree with Thornhill and Palmer. To cite just one example, evolutionary biologist (and Darwinist) Jerry Coyne has produced two scientific critiques of Thornhill’s and Palmer’s biological claims.[16] It’s unfortunate that G&T’s readers won’t know about this from reading their book.
Unlike G&T, Pearcey herself actually tries to bridge the is-ought gap. She writes, “to say that rape confers a reproductive advantage sounds perilously close to saying that it is useful or beneficial.”[17] At best, however, Pearcey’s statement merely expresses a half-truth. To say that rape confers a reproductive advantage may mean that it is useful or beneficial to the rapist. It does not mean, however, that it is useful or beneficial to the victim or to society at large. Furthermore, as Wilson, Dietrich, and Clark point out, even if rape confers evolutionary benefits on the rapist,

it does so at great expense to others, not just the rape victim but society at large. The fact that the actor benefits does nothing to change its moral status, since morality is defined in terms of common welfare. In fact, some of our most severe moral judgements are reserved for behaviors that obviously benefit the actor at the expense of others (e.g., betraying one’s country for a large financial reward), and therefore require an exceptionally strong moral response to counterbalance the personal gain.[18]

So in order to show that ‘Darwinism’ implies that rape is ethically permissible, G&T would need to show that, on ‘Darwinism,’ whatever may be useful to an individual is ethically permissible. G&T haven’t shown that.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] Robert M. Adams, “Divine Commands and the Social Nature of ObligationFaith and Philosophy 4 (1987), 262-275; cf. Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 245-246.
[2] J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 114-15.
[3] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Moral Skepticisms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.
[4] Sinnott-Armstrong 2006, 6.
[5] Sinnott-Armstrong 2006, 6.
[6] Paul Draper, “Darwin’s Argument from Evil” in Scientific Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion (ed. Yujin Nagasawa, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 49-70 at 61-63.
[7] Atheism does entail that overtly theistic metaethics (or, to be more precise, theistic moral ontologies), such as Divine Command Theories and Divine Will Theories, are false. By itself, however, atheism does not tell us which metaethical theory is true. If one defines “atheism” in a way that is compatible with theological noncognitivism, then just any nontheistic metaethical theory could be true. If, however, one defines “atheism” in a way that presupposes theological (and hence ethical) cognitivism, then the most we can say affirmatively is that atheism entails that ethical cognitivism is true. Even so, atheism still leaves wide open the question of which cognitive metaethical theory is true. Cf. Theodore Drange, “Atheism. Agnosticism, Noncognitivism” The Secular Web (1998),
[8] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1939), 239-240, 242, quoted in G&T 2004, 189.
[9] Cf. David Sloan Wilson, Eric Dietrich, and Anne B. Clark, “On the Inappropriate Use of the Naturalistic Fallacy in Evolutionary PsychologyBiology and Philosophy 18 (2003): 669-682 at 671.
[10] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (1st ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 122-23, quoted in G&T 2004, 190.
[11] James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 184.
[12] Rachels 1990, 191-92. Italics are mine.
[13] Rachels 1990, 191-192.
[14] Thornhill and Palmer, quoted in Nancy Pearcey, “Darwin’s Dirty Secret,” World magazine, March 25, 2000, quoted in G&T 2004, 191.
[15] Pearcey 2000.
[16] J.A. Coyne, “Of Vice and Men: Review of A Natural History of Rape, by R. Thornhill and C. Palmer,” The New Republic (April 3, 2000) 27-34, republished electronically at; and Jerry A. Coyne and Andrew Berry, “Rape as an Adaptation: Is This Contentious Hypothesis Advocacy, not Science?Nature 404 (2000): 121-22.
[17] Pearcey 2000.
[18] Wilson, Dietrich, and Clark 2003, 678. Italics are mine.

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 5: Chapter 6

Chapter 6. New Life Forms: From the Goo to You via the Zoo?

Drawing upon the work of sophisticated Intelligent Design (ID) theorists such as William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Jonathan Wells, this chapter uses many of the state-of-the art Intelligent Design (ID) arguments against evolution by natural selection. It also defends ID against various objections.
(i) Objections to Natural Selection: G&T argue that macroevolution is defeated by the following objections: (a) genetic limits; (b) cyclical change; (c) irreducible complexity; (d) the nonviability of transitional forms; (e) molecular isolation; and (f) the fossil record.
(a) Regarding genetic limits, G&T repeat the standard creationist claim that there are natural limits to genetic change. In their words:

Unfortunately for Darwinists, genetic limits seem to be built into the basic types. For example, dog breeders always encounter genetic limits when they intelligently attempt to create new breeds of dogs. (142)

This is not a good objection to evolution, however. The dog breeding example is just confused. The whole point of dog breeding is to produce dogs, not new species of dog-like animals. But let that pass. The much more important point is this: G&T, like most creationists, admit that microevolution occurs. If microevolution occurs, then we already have good antecedent reason to expect macroevolution also occurs: macroevolution just is microevolution carried on for a longer period of time. If a species accrues enough “small” changes over time, eventually all of those “small” changes added together become “big” changes and the result is another species. In other words, the difference between microevolution and macroevolution is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.
(b) Regarding cyclical change, G&T claim that “the changes within types appears to be cyclical.” They take this to be evidence against macroevolution since macroevolution “requires” that changes be “directional toward the development of new life forms” (144). That is a very weak objection to evolution, however.  First, while cyclical change can and does occur, it hardly follows that all evolutionary change is cyclical. Second, contrary to what G&T imply, macroevolution does not require that all evolutionary change is “directional toward the development of new life forms.” If a species lives in a cyclical environment, then evolution predicts the species would display cyclical changes in response to the cyclical environment.
(c) Regarding irreducible complexity, G&T draw upon biochemist Michele Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.[1] Following Behe, they argue that the cell is an “irreducibly complex system,” i.e., a system that is “composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the systems to effectively cease functioning” (145). Furthermore, they argue, objections to Behe’s argument, such as those made by biologist Kenneth Miller, are unsuccessful.
Contrary to G&T, however, I don’t think that Behe has successfully shown that there are any irreducibly complex systems. To say that a biological system is “irreducibly complex” assumes that if the system was missing a part, it could not have been functional in any environment forany reason. But a predecessor to that system could lack a part and yet still be functional because some part of its environment is different than the environment of its descendants. In fact, this is precisely what the Darwinian naturalist claims happened. What Behe calls “irreducibly complex systems” evolved indirectly from systems that performed slightly or very different functions in our ancestors. In order to justify his claim that a system is irreducibly complex, Behe must show that precursors could not have performed different functions in those ancestors. Behe hasn’t shown this.[2]
(d) Regarding the viability of transitional forms, G&T argue that transitional forms could not survive.

For example, consider the Darwinian assertion that birds evolved gradually from reptiles over long periods of time. This would necessitate a transition from scales to feathers. How could a creature survive that no longer has scales but does not quite have feathers? Feathers are irreducibly complex. (148)

The question, “How could a creature survive that no longer has scales but does not quite have feathers?”, is just that: a question, not an argument.  This question can give the illusion of having refuted the possibility of transitional forms only by ignoring the relevant scientific evidence available at the time I Don’t Have Enough Faith was written: (1) the 1861 discovery of a reptile-bird Archaeopteryx, which had both feathers and reptilian features (such as teeth, claws, and a long, bony tail); and (2) the 1996 discovery of Sinosauropteryx, which had evidence of primitive feathers (“a layer of thin, hollow filaments covering its back and tail”).[3] Additionally, since the publication of the book, we may add (3) the 2009 discovery of Tianyulong, a small dinosaur with hairlike “feathers,” which some scientists believe is evidence that all dinosaurs may have had hairy or feathery bodies.[4] The fact that such creatures existed refutes the idea that such creatures could not survive.
Regarding the claim that “feathers are irreducibly complex,” G&T provide no argument to justify that claim, but it’s not hard to imagine what such an argument would look like. For example, such an argument might appeal to two claims: (1) reptile-bird transitional forms could not use their less-than-fully developed feathers (“proto-feathers”) for flight; and (2) reptile-bird transitional forms could not have used their proto-feathers for other functions (besides flight). The second claim is false. Scientists have no problem identifying other uses for proto-feathers, including insulation and sexual selection,[5] and G&T provide no reason at all to reject such explanations. But this entails that G&T have not shown that such indirect routes for the evolution of modern feathers are improbable.
(e) Regarding molecular Isolation, G&T appeal to Michael Denton ‘s 1986 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.[6] Commenting on Denton’s work, they write:

If all species share a common ancestor, we should expect to find protein sequences that are transitional from, say, fish to amphibian, or from reptile to mammal. But that’s not what we find at all. (150)

In his review of Denton’s book, however, Philip Spieth, a geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that Denton’s conclusions are erroneous. It is worth quoting Spieth at length:

These conclusions are erroneous: in his interpretation of “molecular equidistance,” Denton has confused ancestor-descendant relationships with cousin relationships. The telltale clues of molecular data are not, directly, concerned with parents and offspring, intermediate forms, and “missing links.” They are, instead, reflections of relative relatedness between contemporary cousins. Twentieth-century bacteria are not ancestors of twentieth-century turtles and dogs: they are very distant cousins, and, as the data in Denton’s presentation show, the bacteria are roughly equally distant cousins of both turtles and dogs (and all the other organisms that Denton included in Table 12.1).
Cousin relationships between contemporary individuals are governed by the number of generations since there last was an ancestor in common to the individuals. Different members of a group of close relatives always have the same relationship to a more distantly related individual who stands outside the group. Two sisters are equally related to a mutual first cousin. Members of a group of siblings and first cousins are all equally related to a mutual fifth cousin. Lampreys are equally distant cousins of both fish and humans because the last ancestor that lampreys had in common with humans was the same ancestor lampreys had in common with fish. The “molecular equidistance” argument that Denton invokes is invalid, resulting from making comparisons between a single distantly related organism and various members of a more closely related group.
There is an irony in Denton’s presentation to anyone familiar with the data of molecular evolution. Reflections of genealogical relationships are so strong in molecular data that Denton, in spite of his arguments to the contrary, is unable to hide them. The missing “trace” of which he speaks is not a trace; it is a shout. Simple inspection of the data in Table 12.1 will reveal that cytochrome C found in horses, for example, is quite similar in its molecular structure to that found in turtles, slightly less similar to that in fish, still less similar to that in insects, and very much less similar to that in bacteria. The traditional evolutionary series is very much in evidence.
Denton provides a series of diagrams (pp. 282-87) in which nested e[l]lipses, arranged on the basis of molecular data, are used to illustrate his spurious “molecular equidistance” thesis. In these delightful figures organisms are seen to cluster fully in accord with the genealogical relationships that evolutionary biologists deduced from comparative anatomy and paleontological evidence long before molecular data were available. In the final figure, humans and chimps are seen side by side as each other’s closest cousin. Anyone who wants to argue that these nested groups of organisms constitute separate, distinct, and unbridg[e]able groups has to contend with obvious hierarchical patterns of relatedness among the various groups. Notions of relatedness are, of course, antithetical to a typological view of organisms.[7]

(f) Regarding the fossil Record,G&T make three points: (1) gradualism predicts that we should find “thousands, if not millions, of transitional fossils by now,” but that prediction is false; (2) the so-called “Cambrian explosion” is inconsistent with Darwinism because “nearly all of the major groups animals known to exist appear in the fossil record abruptly…, fully formed, and at the same time;” and (3) the fossil record cannot establish ancestral relationships.
I shall argue that each objection is unsuccessful.
(1) is an argument from silence. Given the enormous popularity of this argument (hereafter, “the missing links argument”) in the anti-evolution literature, it is worth showing in detail that it is not successful.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, arguments from silence are a special version of a type of inductive argument known as an explanatory argument. If we let be our background information; S be some truth about the silence of a potential source of evidence; H1 and H2 be rival explanations; Pr(x) be the epistemic probability of some proposition x;[8] and Pr(x | y) be the epistemic probability of x conditional upon y, then we can define arguments from silence according to the following argument schema.

(1) S is known to be true, i.e., Pr(S) is close to 1.
(2) The prior probability of H1 is not much greater than H2, i.e., Pr(H1 | B) is not much greater than Pr(H2 | B).
(3) H2 gives us more reason to expect S than H1, i.e., Pr(S | H2) > Pr(S | H1).
(4) Other evidence held equal, H1 is probably false, i.e., Pr(H1 | B & S) < 1/2.

Like any other explanatory argument, an argument from silence can be logically correct if there is good reason to believe that premises (1)-(3) are true.
With this schema in place, let’s return to the missing links argument. If we abbreviate “the fossil record does not contain any transitional fossils” as S and let E represent evolution, then the missing links argument can be summarized as follows.

(1′) S is known to be true, i.e., Pr(S) is close to 1.
(2′) E is not intrinsically much more probable than ~E.
(3′) ~E gives us more reason to expect S than E, i.e., Pr(S | ~E) > Pr(S | E).
(4′) Other evidence held equal, E is probably false, i.e., Pr(E | B & S) < 1/2.

In support of the first premise, G&T use another type of inductive argument, the argument from authority. Their authority is the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould; they claim he agrees with S on the basis of the following quotation.

The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1). Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they appear; Morphological change is usually limited and directionless. 2). Sudden Appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and ‘fully formed.'[9]

Commenting on this quotation, G&T conclude, “In other words, Gould is admitting that fossil types appear suddenly, fully formed, and remain the same until extinction without any directional change…” (152). We shall abbreviate this conclusion as P.
The most charitable formulation of this argument from authority would be to formulate it as a special version of the inductive argument form known as the statistical syllogism.[10]

(5) The vast majority of statements made by Stephen Jay Gould concerning the fossil record are true.
(6) P is a statement made by Stephen Jay Gould concerning the fossil record.
(7) Therefore, P is true.

While some arguments from authority are inductively correct, this one is not. A careful reading of the Gould quotation does not support G&T’s interpretation. Gould wrote, “The history of most fossil species …,” not, “The history of all fossil species…” This basic distinction is crucial to a correct understanding of Gould’s point (and punctuated equilibrium in general), but anti-evolutionists often fail to recognize it. Indeed, Gould himself repeatedly stated that critics of evolution were quoting him out of context. In 1984, Gould wrote, “It is infuriating to be quoted again and again–whether through design or stupidity, I do not know–as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms.”[11] He continued, “Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.”[12] Note that Gould does not say that transitional forms are completely lacking at the species level, only that they are generally lacking. More recently, in 1994 Gould gave a specific example of a transitional sequence in the fossil record:

I am absolutely delighted to report that our usually recalcitrant fossil record has come through in exemplary fashion. During the past 15 years, new discoveries in Africa and Pakistan have added greatly to our paleontological knowledge of the earliest history of whales. The embarrassment of past absence has been replaced by a bounty of new evidence– and by the sweetest series of transitional forms an evolutionist can find. Truly, we have met the enemy and he is now ours. Moreover, to add blessed insult to the creationists’ injury, these discoveries have arrived in a gradual and sequential fashion– a little bit at a time, step by step, from a tentative hint, 15 years ago to a remarkable smoking gun early in 1994.[13]

It is a misuse of arguments from authority to misquote or misinterpret an authority.[14] Since G&T have misquoted or misinterpreted Gould, their argument from authority is fallacious. It does not support (1’).
But G&T have an independent supporting argument for (1’). Citing molecular biologist Jonathan Wells,[15] G&T also appeal to the so-called Cambrian “explosion” in support of (1’). In their words,

… nearly all of the major groups of animals known to exist appear in the fossil record abruptly and fully formed in strata from the Cambrian period (which many scientists estimate to have occurred between 600 and 500 million years ago). (152)

Again, G&T do not provide the logical form of their argument, so, again, I will offer what I believe to be the most charitable formulation. Let RC be the reference class of “the major groups of animals known to exist” and AC be the attribute class of “appear in the fossil record abruptly and fully formed in strata from the Cambrian period.” Then we can formulate the argument in the above quotation as an inductive argument type known as the statistical generalization.[16]

(8) Nearly all of the observed members of RC are AC.
(9) Therefore, nearly all RC are AC.

I have four replies.
First, the name Cambrian “explosion” is misleading insofar as it suggests to popular audiences—who are not used to thinking in geological timescales (i.e., tens to thousands of millions of years)—that there was a single event. In fact, this “explosion” represents a series of events over the course of 15 -20 million years. Alan Gishlick explains:

The Cambrian Explosion is, rather, the preservation of a series of faunas that occur over a 15-20 million year period starting around 535 million years ago (MA). A fauna is a group of organisms that live together and interact as an ecosystem; in paleontology, “fauna” refers to a group of organisms that are fossilized together because they lived together.[17]

Second, the fact—if it is a fact—that there are no known Cambrian transitional fossils is compatible with the existence of other, later transitional fossils. In other words, even if there are no known transitional fossils which can be dated between 600 and 500 million years ago, it doesn’t follow that there are no later transitional fossils, i.e., fossils which can be dated between 500 million years ago and the present. In fact, the fossil record does contain numerous transitional forms, forms which G&T do not acknowledge, much less refute, in their book.[18]
Third, as written, this statement is false: “most of the major groups of animals known to exist” do not appear in the fossil record in strata from the Cambrian period. Amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals do not appear in the fossil record until very much later than the Cambrian period, just as evolution predicts. The most charitable interpretation I can give to G&T’s statement is to assume that it is a typo. Instead of “nearly all of the major groups of animals known to exist,” I assume that what G&T meant to write is “nearly all of the animal body plans known to exist.” Thus, we should revise RC as follows:

RC’: the reference class of “the animal body plans known to exist”

And the revised statistical generalization becomes:

(8’) Nearly all of the observed members of RC’ are AC.
(9’) Therefore, nearly all RC’ are AC.

I take this revised statistical generalization to be charitable, since it would make G&T’s point consistent with the recent, published work of Stephen Meyer, another leading ID theorist.[19]
Fourth, even (8’) is false. As Gishlick points out, many of the Cambrian body plans—including those of cnidrians, molluscs, sponges, wormlike metazoans, bilateral animals, and possibly arthropods—do not appear “abruptly.” We have fossilized remains of their precursors from fossils dating 10-60 million years older than their Cambrian descendants. As Gishlick explains:

Sixty million years is approximately the same amount of time that has elapsed since the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, providing plenty of time for evolution. In treating the Cambrian Explosion as a single event preceded by nothing, Wells misrepresents fact – the Cambrian explosion is not a single event, nor is it instantaneous and lacking in any precursors.[20]

The upshot is that both supporting arguments for (1’) fail. Thus, G&T have not given any good reasons to think (1’) is true. Furthermore, again, there is very good reason to think (1’) is false, namely, all of the fossilized intermediate and transitional forms, including reptile-birds, reptile-mammals, ape-humans, legged whales, and legged seacows.[21]
Let’s move onto the missing link argument’s premise (3’). G&T write:

If Darwinism were true, we would have found thousands, if not millions, of transitional fossils by now. (2770-2771)

Since it is implied that if Darwinism is false, we would not expect to find transitional fossils, it seems reasonable to interpret G&T as asserting (3’). For convenience, here it is again.

(3′) ~E gives us more reason to expect S than E, i.e., Pr(S | ~E) > Pr(S | E).

As it stands, however, (3’) is not obviously true. By itself, evolution doesn’t predict how many transitional fossils we would find today. Rather, by itself, evolution predicts that there were “thousands, of not millions,” of transitional forms, i.e. living beings. After a living being dies, its remains may or may not be destroyed (such as being eaten by other animals or by decay). If its remains are not destroyed, the remains may or may not become fossilized. If a dead organism is fossilized, that fossil may or may not survive intact to the present day. If the fossil survives intact to the present day, that fossil may or may not be found. If the fossil is found, it may or may not have preserved enough information to determine whether it is transitional. If the fossil preserves enough information to identify it as transitional, it may or may not have been examined yet by someone knowledgeable enough to identify it as such.[22]
The hypothesis of evolution says nothing about any of this. We get predictions about the number of transitional fossils only when we combine evolution with one or more auxiliary hypotheses about the frequency of fossilization, fossil preservation, fossil discovery, and fossil classification. G&T do not defend any of these auxiliary hypotheses and so their case for (3′) is, at best, incomplete.
So why should we believe (3’) is true? According to G&T, the answer is “because Darwin said so.”

… [Charles Darwin] did recognize that the fossil record posed a big problem for his theory because it didn’t show gradualism. That’s why he wrote, “Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain, and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.”(152)

There is little doubt that G&T’s quotation of Darwin has great rhetorical value; it is analogous to the courtroom strategy of obtaining testimony from a hostile witness. What this quotation has in rhetorical value, it lacks in logical or evidential value.  Once again G&T making an argument from authority and, once again, the argument is logically incorrect because G&T have quotemined that authority.
The quotation appears in Darwin’s Origin of Species, sixth edition, in chapter 10, “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record.” As Jon Barber points out, “Darwin’s writing style was to ask a rhetorical question and then give an answer.”[23]  In order to show Darwin’s tendency “in action,” I’m going to quote a longer excerpt of the book than G&T did, with the portion quoted by G&T in italics.

But just in proportion as this process of extermination has acted on an enormous scale, so must the number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed, be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.
In the first place, it should always be borne in mind what sort of intermediate forms must, on the theory, have formerly existed. I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself forms DIRECTLY intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor; and the progenitor will generally have differed in some respects from all its modified descendants. To give a simple illustration: the fantail and pouter pigeons are both descended from the rock-pigeon; if we possessed all the intermediate varieties which have ever existed, we should have an extremely close series between both and the rock-pigeon; but we should have no varieties directly intermediate between the fantail and pouter; none, for instance, combining a tail somewhat expanded with a crop somewhat enlarged, the characteristic features of these two breeds. These two breeds, moreover, have become so much modified, that, if we had no historical or indirect evidence regarding their origin, it would not have been possible to have determined from a mere comparison of their structure with that of the rock-pigeon, C. livia, whether they had descended from this species or from some other allied species, such as C. oenas.
So with natural species, if we look to forms very distinct, for instance to the horse and tapir, we have no reason to suppose that links directly intermediate between them ever existed, but between each and an unknown common parent. The common parent will have had in its whole organisation much general resemblance to the tapir and to the horse; but in some points of structure may have differed considerably from both, even perhaps more than they differ from each other. Hence, in all such cases, we should be unable to recognise the parent-form of any two or more species, even if we closely compared the structure of the parent with that of its modified descendants, unless at the same time we had a nearly perfect chain of the intermediate links. (boldface mine)

The extended passage, especially the sentence I’ve boldfaced  above, exposes the inaccuracy in G&T’s selective quotation of Darwin. Not only does the extended passage fail to support (3’); it provides clear and decisive evidence against it. Furthermore, Darwin’s explanation also directly refutes the familiar creationist claim, parroted by G&T, that “All animal groups appear separately, fully formed, and at the same time” (###).
G&T also object to the fossil record as evidence for evolution for another reason. Following Michael Denton and Jonathan Wells, G&T argue that “the fossil record cannot establish ancestral relationships” (###).  As Mark Vuletic has argued, however, Denton relies upon “unreasonably strict criteria” for recognizing transitional forms. I will quote Vuletic at length.

Now to the fossil record. Similar to the creationists, Denton proposes that there are not enough transitional forms in the fossil record, and that what transitional forms do exist are rather dubious in nature because they do not show soft organ changes (since organs aren’t fossilized) and are not intermediate in every single characteristic. Thus, Archaeopteryx lithographica, perhaps the most famous transitional form of all time, is inadequate because its wings and feathers were fully formed. Never mind that Archaeopteryx sported more reptilian skeletal characteristics than it did avian ones, and ignore the fact that its skeletal characteristics very closely match a class of wingless reptiles called therodonts that existed around the same time and in the same geographical location. It is apparent, then, that Denton’s standards for labeling a fossil a “transitional form” are unreasonably restrictive.
As far as soft organ characteristics go, researchers can indeed also obtain information on a fossilized organism’s soft anatomy and behavior by paying attention to structural characteristics. Thus, the recent find of Ambulocetus natans (Berta, 1994) lends further credence to the ungulate-to-whale transition that Denton finds so incredulous, because the skeletal arrangement of the creature is such that it could undulate its spine to produce a motion not unlike that of the whale’s tail motion (not to mention that Ambulocetus was found geographically and temporally just about where evolutionists hoped to find it). Similarly, examination of the configuration of basal ridges in fossilized reptile-mammal transitional form skulls shows how endothermy developed gradually, even though the evolution of the soft, complex endothermic apparatus could not be directly observed (Hillenius, 1994).
Denton’s denial of the fish-to-amphibian transition as demonstrated by Eusthenopteron (a late Devonian fish) and Icthyostega (a late Devonian amphibian) is a striking example of the excessive demands he makes on transitional forms. He echoes creationist Duane Gish’s criticism that Icthyostega has well developed limbs for terrestrial movement, while Eusthenopteron has mere fins. In the first place, it is unreasonable to expect a transitional form to be transitional in every single skeletal characteristic it exhibits. Secondly, the correlation between the skull and vertebral characteristics of the two creatures is impossible to account for in a framework of typology:
The crossopterygian fish Eusthenopteron is linked to the early amphibian Icthyostega by a number of characteristics: (1) same pattern of skull bones as Icthyostega, (2) internal nostrils (found only in land animals and sarcopterygians – a taxonomic group encompassing lungfish and crossopterygians), (3) teeth like amphibians’, (4) a two-part cranium (icthyostegids are the only other vertebrates that have this characteristic), and (5) same vertebral structure. (derived from McGowan, 1984, 152-153)
Every once in a while, a new transitional form turns up and strengthens the evolutionary pattern inherent in the fossil record . But in any case, to deny that the ones that already exist are what they appear to be is a sure indication of unreasonably strict criteria for transitional forms.[24]

In summary, then, all of G&T’s objections to biological evolution fail.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996).
[2] Paul Draper, “Irreducible Complexity and Darwinian Gradualism: a Reply to Michael J. Behe,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2002), 3–21.
[3] Carl Zimmer, “Evolution of Feathers: The Long Curious Extravagant Evolution of Feathers,” National Geographic  (February 2011). Republished electronically at
[4] Zimmer 2011.
[5] Zimmer 2011.
[6] Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Chevy Chase, Maryland: Adler & Adler, 1986).
[7] Philip T. Spieth, “Review: “Evolution — A Theory in Crisis” Zygon 22 (1987), 249-68. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.1987.tb00849.x. Republished electronically at
[8] By “epistemic probability,” I mean this. “Relative to K, p is epistemically more probable than q, where K is an epistemic situation and p and q are propositions, just in case any fully rational person in K would have a higher degree of belief in p than in q.” See Paul Draper, “Pain and Pleasure” in The Evidential Argument from Evil (ed. by Daniel Howard-Snyder, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 27.
[9] Stephen J. Gould, “Evolution’s Erratic Pace,” Natural History 86 (1977): 13-14, quoted in G&T 2004, 152.
[10] See Wesley C. Salmon, Logic (third ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 98.
[11] Stephen Jay Gould, Hens Teeth and Horse’s Toes (New York: Norton & Co., 1983), 260. Reprinted in “Evolution as Fact and Theory” in Science and Creationism (ed. Ashley Montagu, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 123-24. Italics are mine.
[12] Gould 1983, 261.
[13] Stephen Jay Gould, “Hooking Leviathan by its Past” Natural History 5/94, 11.
[14] Salmon 1984, 98.
[15] Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?: Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution Is Wrong (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2000).
[16] Salmon 1984, 90.
[17] Alan Gishlick, “Icons of Evolution? Why Much of What Jonathan Wells Writes About Evolution is Wrong” National Center for Science Education (October 23, 2008),, 11-12.
[18] See L. Beverly Halstead, “Evolution–The Fossils Say Yes!” Science and Creationism (ed. Ashley Montagu, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 240-254; Roger J. Cuffey, “Paleontologic Evidence and Organic Evolution” Science and Creationism (ed. Ashley Montagu, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 255-281; Laurie R. Godfrey, “Creationism and Gaps in the Fossil Record” Scientists Confront Creationism (ed. Laurie R. Godfrey, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983), 193-218.
[19] Meyer argues that Cambrian animal forms contain “functionally specified information” and so are irreducibly complex systems; moreover, this morphological irreducible complexity is independent of the sort of biochemical irreducible complexity argued by Behe. Meyer’s argument, however, fails for the following reasons. (i) Even if the origin of Cambrian animal forms were evidence favoring ID over naturalism, at best Meyer’s argument commits the fallacy of understated evidence. Meyer neglects to mention other known facts about Cambrian animal forms, facts which favor naturalism over ID. For example, (a) the Cambrian era did not include animal forms much more impressive than known Cambrian forms; (b) the creation of new information is habitually associated with embodied minds; and (c) all living animals on Earth are the gradually modified descendants of Cambrian animals. (ii) According to Meyer, an unknown Intelligent Designer used an unknown, mysterious mechanism to design Cambrian animal forms for an unknown purpose. It follows, therefore, that Meyer’s intelligent design “hypothesis” is, at best, an explanation name, not an actual explanation, because the Intelligent Designer’s methods and purposes are unknown and, indeed, mysterious. As philosopher Paul Draper pointed out (in an unrelated context), “Mystification is the opposite of explanation.” See Stephen L. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life (New York: Harper One, 2013); and Paul Draper, “A Darwinian Argument from Evil,” unpublished paper. Cf. Gregory W. Dawes, Theism and Explanation (New York: Routledge, 2009).
[20] Gishlick 2008, 13.
[21] See Douglas Theobald, “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: Part 1: The Unique Universal Phylogenetic Tree,” The TalkOrigins Archive (2013),
[22] Mark Isaak, “Index to Creationist Claims: Claim CC200.1” The TalkOrigins Archive (2005),
[23] See Jon Barber, “Quote #75” in The Quote Mine Project: Or Lies, Damned Lies, and Quote Mines at The Talk.Origins Archive (2003-2004),
[24] Mark I. Vuletic, “Review of Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis,” The Talk.Origins Archive (1996-97),

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 4: Chapter 5

Chapter 5. The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe?

In this chapter, G&T defend a design argument focused on the first life. They also present a variety of objections to scientism and materialism.
I will provide a very brief summary of their points, before providing my critique.
(i) Argument to Design of the First Life: G&T argue that the origin of the first life is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. They emphasize the following points:  (1) all life, including the first life, contains specified complexity; (2) only an intelligent cause could generate the specified complexity required for the first life; (3) objections to naturalistic explanations for the origin of life; and (4) the impossibility of life arising from nonlife by chance alone.
(ii) Some Critical Comments:
(a) Straw Men: This chapter is an instance of a familiar feature of anti-atheism apologetics: caricaturing the actual beliefs and arguments of atheists to make them look as stupid as possible.Consider, for example, G&T’s portrayal of evolution: “This, of course, is the theory of macroevolution: from the infantile, to the reptile, to the Gentile; or from the goo to you via the zoo” (###). This strategy is pretty much beneath contempt.
(b) Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of Life: Another problem with this chapter is the extremely biased presentation of alternative theories. G&T consider two naturalistic explanations: spontaneous generation and panspermia. But G&T provide no reason to believe that these two explanations are representative of naturalistic explanations in general. Furthermore, one of these explanations, spontaneous generation, is probably rejected by every scientist working on the origin of life.[1]
(c) The Origin of Life and the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy: Why would anyone believe that the origin of life has a naturalistic explanation? According to G&T, there is only one reason: such a person must rule out even the possibility of an intelligent cause. This is why they make statements like: “their preconceived ideology–naturalism–prevents them from even considering an intelligent cause” (119).
While such statements are red meat for G&T’s partisans in the intelligent design community, G&T commit what philosophers Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti have dubbed the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy: the fallacy of dismissing objections to theistic arguments on the basis of the myth that these objections presuppose a naturalistic ideology, viz., the supernatural does not exist.[2] G&T falsely assume that only naturalists believe that life has a natural origin because G&T rule out even the possibility of an empirical case for a natural origin, a case which might impress both naturalists and theists.  This case is based largely on the fact that naturalistic explanations have a much better track record than supernatural ones. Prior to scientific investigation of the origin of life, this fact makes it very likely that the cause of life is natural, not supernatural.  Furthermore, this is true even on the assumption that God exists. So naturalists are not the only ones who are justified in predicting that the origin of life is natural, not supernatural. Supernaturalists, including theists, are also justified in making this prediction.
Indeed, as Paul Draper explains, theists presumed

… that natural events have natural causes existed long before the rise of modern science. Indeed, even in the Bible, explanations appealing to God, even if they are not the last resort, are often not the first (e.g., 1 Samuel 3).
Because it is unlikely that the authors of the Bible are guilty of some anti-religious metaphysical bias or that they believe that a faithful or generous God would never act directly in the world, what is the source of this pre-scientific presumption in favor of naturalistic explanations? No doubt it is a simple induction from past experiences. In very many cases, a little investigation reveals natural causes for natural events, even unusual ones. Thus, it follows inductively that, prior to investigation, the probability that the immediate cause of any given natural event is itself natural is high. We did not need science to teach us this.[3]

Furthermore, as Draper points out, science has greatly strengthened this presumption of naturalism.

In many cases in which no naturalistic explanation seemed particularly promising, sufficient effort in searching for one turned out to bear fruit. This is presumably why even William Dembski (1994, 132), a leading critic of methodological naturalism, claims that one should appeal to the supernatural only when one has good reason to believe that what he calls one’s “empirical resources” are exhausted. Thus, although Dembski attacks the view that naturalistic explanations are better than non-naturalistic ones, he does not deny that, prior to investigation or even after considerable investigation, they remain more likely to be true. On this point almost everyone will agree. For example, what philosopher or scientist, no matter how deeply religious, believed or even took seriously the sincere claim of some members of the Cuban community in Miami that God miraculously prevented Elian Gonzalez from getting a sunburn while at sea (rather than that his fellow survivors lied when they claimed he had been in the water for three days after his boat sank)? It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, almost all natural events have other natural events as their immediate causes.[4]

This strong presumption of naturalism does not, however, justify an absolute exclusion of supernatural causes from scientific explanations. As Draper explains, it justifies a modest methodological naturalism.

A strong presumption of naturalism based on everyday experience and the success of naturalistic science justifies a modest methodological naturalism: the reason scientists should not look for supernatural causes is that natural causes are much more likely to be found. A methodological naturalism justified in this way is “modest” because it implies that scientists should look first for naturalistic explanations, and (depending on how strong the presumption of naturalism is) maybe second, third, and fourth, too, but it does not absolutely rule out appeals to the supernatural. … We can state this more modest methodological naturalism as follows: scientific explanations may appeal to the supernatural only as a last resort. Both Meyer (1994, 97) and Dembski (1994, 132), two leading opponents of methodological naturalism understood as an absolute prohibition, seem to agree with this principle, which does not depend on any metaphysical or anti-religious bias.
It should be emphasized, however, that even this modest form of methodological naturalism does not sanction god-of-the-gaps theology. It does not imply that an appeal to the supernatural is justified simply because scientists fail after much effort to find a naturalistic explanation for some phenomena. Very strong reasons to believe there is no hidden naturalistic explanation would be required as well. In other words, the search for natural causes should continue until the best explanation of the failure to find one is that there is none.[5]

The upshot is that the past success of naturalistic explanations justifies the prediction, made by both theists and naturalists alike, that the origin of life has a natural cause.
(d) The Origin of Life and the Poverty of Theistic Explanation: G&T’s entire chapter presupposes that intelligent design (ID) is not just an explanation for the origin of life, but the best explanation. But ID cannot be the best explanation if it is not even an explanation. So why should anyone think that intelligent design explains the origin of life?
Contrary to what some atheists have argued, the problem is not that it is impossible for theism to be an explanation of anything; I believe it is possible for a theistic explanation to be a scientific explanation. (In other words, I’m not offering an “in principle” objection to theistic explanation.) Rather, the problem is that ‘the’ theistic ‘explanation’ for the origin of life isn’t well defined.  I have read a decent amount of the latest ID literature, including Stephen Meyer’s book-length treatment of the origin of life (see here and here),[6] and I still haven’t found a well-defined statement of the (theistic) ID explanation.  Allow me to explain.
A personal explanation explains one or more observations by positing a person with certain goals who uses a mechanism to achieve those goals; a theistic explanation just is a personal explanation where the person is God.[7] In order to have a theistic explanation for the origin of life, it follows that we need to know (1) why God designed life (“God’s goals”); and (2) how He did it (“God’s mechanisms”). If we don’t have both of those things, then we don’t have a theistic explanation.
So what, then, is the theistic explanation offered by G&T for the origin of life? All they provide are vague references to an “intelligent cause.” But in order to explain the origin of life, it’s not enough to posit the existence of an intelligent designer (God).  G&T must also describe God’s goals and mechanisms. Here their argument absolutely breaks down because they say nothing about God’s goals or mechanisms for designing the first life.
It gets worse. The problem is not just that their “explanation”—if we can even call it that—is poorly defined or incomplete. The implied mechanism is mysterious. To paraphrase Gregory Dawes,

A theistic [intelligent design] explanation, in order to be an explanation, presupposes a mechanism—the action of a spiritual being within the material world—that is entirely unlike any other mechanism with which we are familiar. Not only does this mechanism lack analogy; it is also wholly mysterious.[8]

Mystification is the opposite of explanation.
But if G&T’s intelligent design “explanation” is incomplete in this way, it is not (yet) an explanation. And therefore it cannot—yet—be be the best explanation. Indeed, to simplify matters, suppose we were offered only the following two choices:

(1) Biological information in the first life is the result of an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism.

(2) Biological information in the first life is the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism used for an unknown purpose.

It’s far from obvious that (2) is a better explanation than (1). Perhaps G&T might reply that (2) is a better explanation of (1) in light of our background knowledge that the creation of messages (i.e., ‘complex specified information’) requires an intelligent being. But that reply understates the evidence, viz., the relevant background knowledge. All non-question-begging examples of conscious activity are dependent upon a physical brain, which is itself dependent upon matter. So a better description of the relevant background knowledge seems to be, “the creation of messages (i.e., ‘complex specified information’) requires matter.” This shows that once the background knowledge about the creation of new information is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors a theistic explanation over a naturalistic explanation.
Furthermore, G&T, like other ID theorists, neglect the track record of theistic explanations. But we need to compare the track record of supernatural explanations to that of purely naturalistic explanations. Here is Dawes:

Not only are they in competition, but a comparison of their track records will count against theism. For the naturalistic research programme of the modern sciences has been stunningly successful since its inception in the seventeenth century. Again and again, it has shown that postulating the existence of a deity is not required in order to explain the phenomena. Sir Isaac Newton (1642—1727) still required God to fine-tune the mechanics of his solar system, but by the time of Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749—1827), the astronomer notoriously had no need of that hypothesis. Until 1859, it seemed that the diversity of living organisms could not be accounted for without reference to God, but Charles Darwin offered us a more successful, natural alternative. … From a Bayesian point of view, you might argue that the past failure of the tradition of theistic explanation lowers the prior probability of any proposed theistic hypothesis.[9]

So, again, even if we grant Meyer the crucial premise that “creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity,” it’s not clear that that fact offsets the other facts, listed above, which count against conscious activity as the cause of biological information.
(iii) Objections to Scientism: In a debate with William Lane Craig, Peter Atkins claimed that “science can account for everything.” G&T summarize Craig’s response to Atkins, which is that science cannot prove the following five rational beliefs: (a) mathematics and logic; (b) metaphysical truths; (c) ethical judgments; (d) aesthetic judgments; and (e) science itself. G&T then add, “Atkins’s claim that science can account for everything is not false only because of the five counterexamples Craig noted; it is also false because it is self-defeating” (##). Craig, Geisler, and Turek are correct. Atkins’s scientism is not only false, but also self-defeating.
(iv) Arguments against Materialism: They emphasize the following objections to materialism:  (a) it’s unable to explain specified complexity in life; (b) human thoughts are not comprised only of materials; (c) scientists are unable to create life using all the materials of life; (d) spiritual experiences; and (e) arguments from reason.
Regarding (a) (specified complexity), we’ve already addressed that.
Regarding (b) (human thought), this argument–assertion might be a better word, since it is not much of an argument as it stands–simply begs the question against the materialist.  The refutation of this argument is similar to one of the earlier refutations of their design argument. G&T can conclude that human thought is not comprised only of materials only by assuming that materialism is false. But G&T also claim that the fact that human thoughts are not completely materially based is supposed to lead to the conclusion that materialism is false. So the presupposition that materialism is false is both an assumption and a conclusion of this argument.
Regarding (c) (creation of life in a lab), G&T argue that our inability to create life is evidence against theism. This argument does nothing to refute the previous objections of this chapter. Again, the past success of naturalistic explanations justifies the prediction that the origin of life has a natural cause, consisting solely of pre-existing material ingredients.
Regarding (d) (spiritual experiences), there is a difference between “spiritual experiences” of something and “theistic experiences” (of God). Philosopher Paul Draper has identified four factors which affect how much direct evidence is provided by experiences, and applied these factors to theistic experiences.[10] These factors and their applicability to theistic experiences are summarized in the table below.

Factor Applicability to Theistic Experiences
Specificity Basic claims about theistic experiences are highly specific.
Significance Basic claims about theistic experiences are highly significant.
Nature of (Allegedly) Experienced Object God is an extraordinary object.
Mode of Perception Theistic experiences are nonsensory. Basic claims about theistic experiences are “claims to perceive something by means of an extraordinary mode of perception.”[11]

Table 1

Taken together, these four factors show that, accordingly, claims about theistic experiences “should be treated with initial skepticism rather than initial credulity” or trust.[12] To be more precise, Draper concludes that while theistic experiences “confer some prima facie probability on” claims about such experiences, they are not “strong direct evidence for such claims – that they make such claims prima facie more probable than not.”[13]
While spiritual experiences are some evidence for theism, G&T once again understate the evidence. The fact that people throughout history have had such experiences hardly exhausts what we know about such experiences, however. Draper identifies three additional facts about the distribution of religious experience.
First, we also know that many people never have religious experiences and those who do almost always have a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion. To paraphrase Draper, “it seems rather one-sided to argue that spiritual experiences are evidence for theism and not consider whether the fact that many people never have a theistic experience is evidence against theism.”[14]
Second, we also know that the subjects of spiritual experiences pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others.  As Draper notes, this is “much more likely if these experiences are all delusory than if some or all are veridical and so is much more likely on naturalism than on theism.“[15]
Third, we also know that many victims of tragedy do not seem to be comforted by spiritual experiences.[16] Again, paraphrasing Draper, “While this fact is compatible with theism—it’s logically possible that God exists and has some unknown reason for allowing us to suffer alone—it is still much more probable on naturalism than on theism.“[17]
Once the evidence about spiritual experiences is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over materialism.
Regarding (e) (arguments from reason), G&T actually present three related but separate arguments. The first is a version of the so-called “argument from reason.” The second is an argument that reason cannot be justified if materialism is true. The third is an argument against the evolution of consciousness.
Regarding the first argument, I think G&T are being incredibly uncharitable to materialists. Let me quote their argument in its entirety.

Finally, if materialism is true, then reason itself is impossible. If mental processes are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, then there is no reason to believe that anything is true (including the theory of materialism). Chemicals can’t evaluate whether or not a theory is true. Chemicals don’t reason, they react. (129)

The word “chemicals” conjures up the image of a scientist wearing a white lab coat pouring liquids from one beaker to another. No one, not even eliminative materialists, believes that such simple, inorganic chemicals have the ability to reason. G&T are either attacking a straw man of their own creation (by equating materialism with the belief that minds are nothing but simple, inorganic chemicals) or committing the logical fallacy of composition (by assuming that what is true of the individual chemical elements of the brain must also be true of the brain as a whole). Materialists do not believe that “mindless matter” has the ability to reason; rather, materialists believe that we might call “mindful matter”—i.e., minds that are nothing but matter configured into physical brains—has the ability to reason. Simple slogans about “chemical reactions” do nothing to refute that. They especially don’t establish the ‘impossibility’ of “reason itself.”
The second argument, which I take to be very similar to the transcendental argument for God’s existence, is equally fallacious. They write:

As J. Budziszwewski [sic] points out, “The motto ‘Reason Alone!’ is nonsense anyway. Reason itself presupposes faith. Why? Because a defense of reason by reason is circular, therefore worthless. Our only guarantee that human reason works is God who made it.” (130)

Budziszewski is correct that “a defense of reason by reason is circular,” but it hardly follows from that fact that “our only guarantee that human reason works is God who made it.” If we’re allowed to start outside of what can be justified by reason alone (and instead go with presuppositions), then it’s far from obvious why the belief, “reason is justified,” is any less worthy of being presupposed than, say, the belief “God exists.”[18]
In their explanation of Budziszewski’s argument, G&T present what I interpret as a third, unrelated argument. According to this argument, the fact that we are intelligent is much more probable on theism (and our intelligence arose from preexisting intelligence) than on naturalism (and our intelligence arose arose from mindless matter). They support this claim with two supporting arguments. According to the first supporting argument, the emergence of intelligence is surprising on naturalism because

… it contradicts all scientific observation, which demonstrates that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. You can’t give what you haven’t got, yet materialists believe that dead, unintelligent matter has produced intelligent life. This is like believing that the Library of Congress resulted from an explosion in a printing shop! (130)

It is, of course, beyond reasonable doubt that the Library of Congress cannot result from an explosion in a printing shop. But this example is not of obvious relevance to materialism, which gives us no reason to expect that intelligent life has such a sudden, abrupt origin. In fact, a moment’s reflection reveals that this sort of explosive start for intelligent life is virtually impossible if materialism is true. Given that intelligent life exists, the gradual emergence of intelligent life is antecedently likely on materialism, for two reasons. First, there are no plausible materialist alternatives to evolution, which entails that complex living things are the gradually modified descendants of less complex living things. Second, materialism gives us strong antecedent reason to believe that intelligence plays the same sort of biological role as other organic systems and so has the same evolutionary origin as these other systems, an origin which rules out the abrupt appearance of intelligence.
Another worry I have about this argument is that it cuts both ways. If “you can’t give what you haven’t got,” then that means also means that God cannot give what He hasn’t got, namely, physical matter. God is, by definition, an immaterial being. Theism asks us to believe that an immaterial being can somehow interact with matter to make it intelligent. It’s far from obvious that “the immaterial can interact with the material” is any more plausible than “intelligence can come from nonintelligence.”
According to the second supporting argument, the emergence of intelligence is probable on theism because our minds are “made in the image of the Great Mind—God” (130). But this argument is multiply flawed. First, appealing to the doctrine that humans are made in the image of God is ad hoc. At this point in the book, G&T are arguing for what we might call ‘mere’ theism, not Christian theism. It’s far from obvious that the content of ‘mere’ theism would lead one to expect that God would create human minds in His image. At the very least, this much is clear: G&T give us no reason to think that it does.
Second, this argument also understates the evidence. Let’s assume that the existence of intelligent beings (qua conscious beings) is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. The fact that such intelligent beings exist hardly exhausts everything we know about conscious beings. Given that there are intelligent beings, the fact that there are no known (physical) creatures much more intelligent than humans favors naturalism over theism. Paul Draper explains.

… I am not denying that human beings are impressive in many ways. But examined from the perspective of what is possible for an omnipotent being, we are, in terms of intelligence, a hair’s breadth away from monkeys. Again, one would expect this on … [materialism] because the more intelligent the life, the less likely it is that naturalistic processes would produce it. Of course, if one believes in God and, looking around, finds nothing more impressive than human beings, one will be forced to conclude that God wanted to make beings with very limited intelligence. But surely one would not have predicted this beforehand. There are indefinitely many different kinds of creatures that an omnipotent being would have the power to create and that, other things being equal, would be more valuable to create than humans. Antecedently, a God would be more likely to create these more impressive creatures than to create us.[19]

Moreover, we also know that conscious states are highly dependent upon a (physical) brain. While this fact is logically compatible with the existence of an immaterial “soul,” given that intelligent creatures exist, this fact is more probable on naturalism than on theism. [20] So, again, once the evidence is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over naturalism.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] “Spontaneous generation” is the hypothesis that at least some organisms (such as fleas or maggots) originated suddenly and directly from inanimate matter (such as dust). Spontaneous generation was experimentally discredited long ago; I am not aware of any scientist specializing in origin of life studies who is a proponent of spontaneous generation. In contrast, “chemical evolution” is the hypothesis that the first self-replicating genetic molecules originated by a series of chemical processes involving organic compounds.
[2] Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti 2013, 15.
[3] Paul Draper, “God, Science, and Naturalism” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (ed. William J. Wainwright, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 296.
[4] Draper 2005, 296.
[5] Draper 2005, 297. I have added the italics to the last sentence.
[6] Stephen L. Meyer, The Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
[7] Gregory Dawes, Theism and Explanation (New York: Routledge, 2009), 9, 108.
[8] Dawes 2009, 128.
[9] Dawes 2009, 130-32. Italics are mine.
[10] Paul Draper, “God and Perceptual Evidence,” Philosophy of Religion 32 (1992): 149-65.
[11] Draper 1992, 159.
[12] Draper 1992, 159.
[13] Draper 1992, 160.
[14] Draper 1992, 161.
[15] Draper 2002, 204-205.
[16] Paul Draper, “Cumulative Cases,” in Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, Philip L. Quinn, Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Religion (John Wiley and Sons: 2010), 414-24 at 421; Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (ed. Daniel Howard Snyder and Paul K. Moser, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 204-205.
[17] Draper 2002, 204-205.
[18] D. Gene Witmer, “Atheism, Reason, and Morality: Responding to Some Popular Christian Apologetics,” talk given to the Atheist, Agnostic, and Freethinker Student Association, University of Florida, September 26, 2006.
[19] Paul Draper, “Collins’ Case for Cosmic Design” in God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence, The Secular Web (2008),
[20] Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions Of a Practicing Agnostic,” Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 197-214 at 202-203.

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 3: Chapter 4

Chapter 4. Divine Design

G&T provide a brief introduction to what they call ‘the’ Teleological Argument, which they formulate as follows.
1. Every design had a designer.
2. The universe has a highly complex design.
3. Therefore, the universe had a Designer. (95)
Like the cosmological argument, this argument is deductively valid. Again, my plan is to provide a very brief summary of G&T’s defense of this argument, before providing some critical comments of my own.
(i) Evidence of Design: G&T provide a helpful metaphor with NASA’s Apollo 13 mission to introduce their readers to the basic thrust of their design argument, in which they emphasize the following “anthropic constants”: (1) oxygen level; (2) atmospheric transparency; (3) moon-earth gravitational interaction; (4) carbon dioxide level; and (5) gravity. In order for life to be possible, the value of each constant has to be within a very narrow range. They list ten additional such constants and then refer to astrophysicist Hugh Ross, who has identified a total of 122 such constants.
How does this constitute evidence of design? First, G&T argue that if any of the anthropic constants had a value outside of a very narrow range, life would have been impossible. Next, they ask us to imagine lots of different possible universes, each with different values of the anthropic constants. If we compare the number of life-permitting universes to the number of possible universes, we will find that only a small portion of the possible universes are life-permitting.  Indeed, summarizing Ross’s calculations, G&T report that the probability that all 122 of these constants would have life-permitting values for any planet in the universe by chance is 1 in 10138.
(ii) Atheistic Objections: G&T then consider atheistic responses to this argument: (1) an admission of a Designer; (2) chance (in the form of the Multiple Universe or multiverse hypothesis). After presenting a series of objections to the multiverse hypothesis, G&T triumphantly conclude that the anthropic principle shows “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the universe is designed (111). Furthermore, they claim that atheists who remain atheists in the face of this design argument are irrational and unwilling to admit there is a designer (112).
(iii) Some Critical Comments: Having now outlined the case which G&T make for divine design, I shall now make some critical comments.  As will become clear from my comments, I think that G&T only considered the weakest objections to their argument.
(a) Question-begging: First, G&T’s version of the teleological argument is a petitio principii, viz., it begs the question.[1] Why do G&T not consider the possibility that the universe’s life-permitting conditions are the result of impersonal, mechanistic causes? Because they rule out that possibility in advance. G&T can conclude “the universe has a highly complex design” only by assuming that the universe’s life-permitting conditions had a Designer. But G&T also claim that the design argument is supposed to lead to the conclusion that the universe had a Designer. The presupposition that the universe had a Designer is both an assumption and a conclusion of G&T’s design argument. This vicious circularity nullifies their argument in its present form.
In order to repair the argument, G&T would have to rely upon non-question-begging premises. For example, let’s start with the statement about the “anthropic constants.” Then the first premise of the repaired argument can be written as follows.

1’. We know that only a small portion of the range of possible values that the anthropic constants could have had would be life permitting.

Next, we need to add a statement about how theism “predicts” the cosmic design data better than atheism.

2’. The fact that the anthropic constants have life permitting values is much more probable on the assumption that God exists than on the assumption that God does not exist.

Finally, we conclude with a statement about the direction and weight of the evidence.

3’. The fact that the anthropic constants have life permitting values is strong evidence for the existence of God.

Although G&T don’t explicitly appeal to 1’-3’, I trust that even they would agree that their version of the design argument depends upon the truth of all three statements. Furthermore, unlike G&T’s version, this design argument doesn’t beg the question. Finally, this repaired argument is useful because its premises clarify some of the key disputes between proponents and critics of this type of design argument. This leads to my next point.
(b) G&T Understate the Evidence: Even if we assume that so-called cosmic “fine-tuning” is evidence favoring theism over naturalism, that argument commits the fallacy of understated evidence.[2]  In other words, even if the general fact of fine-tuning is more probable on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that naturalism is true, it ignores other, more specific facts about fine-tuning, facts that, given fine-tuning, are more likely on naturalism than on theism.
What are these other facts?
(1) So much of the universe is highly hostile to life. Most of the universe is incredibly hostile to life, such as containing vast amounts of empty space, temperatures near absolute zero, cosmic radiation, and so forth. Given that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that so much of our universe is highly hostile to life is more probable on naturalism than it is on theism.[3]
(2) Our universe is not teeming with life, including life much more impressive than human life. Given that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that our universe is not known to have relatively more impressive life is much more probable on single-universe naturalism than it is on theism.[4]
(3) The only intelligent life we know of is human. Given that intelligent life of some sort exists in the universe, the fact that the only intelligent life we know of is human is very many times more probable on naturalism than it is on theism.[5]
(4) Intelligent life is the result of evolution. G&T dispute the fact of biological evolution, so we will address their objections later.  For now we will simply note the following. Given that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that it developed as a result of biological evolution (if it is a fact) is more probable on naturalism than on it is on theism.[6]
The upshot is this. Even if the general fact of cosmic “fine-tuning” were more probable on theism than on naturalism, there are other, more specific facts about cosmic “fine-tuning,” facts that, given cosmic “fine-tuning,” are more likely on naturalism than on theism. Once all of the evidence about cosmic “fine-tuning” has been fully stated, however, it’s far from obvious that facts about cosmic “fine-tuning” favor theism over naturalism.
(c) Completely Arbitrary Probability Estimates: Recall that G&T appeal to Ross’s probability estimates in order to show that the probability of 122 anthropic constants having life-permitting values is 1 in 10138.[7] Ross arrives at this ridiculously low number, in part, from multiplying together his estimates of the probabilities for each anthropic constant or parameter. Consider, for example, the relative abundances of different exotic mass particles. Ross estimates that the probability of that parameter having a life-permitting value is 0.1.
But there are two problems with Ross’s methodology. First, Ross doesn’t describe the range of possible values for each parameter or, more important, the subset of such values which would be life-permitting (even if we grant the bogus assumption that life as we know it is the only possible kind of life). In the absence of such a range, it’s hard to independently test his probability estimates.
Second, if these probability estimates are subjective probabilities—and that’s unclear—then Ross provides no justification for accepting them. The problem is not that they are subjective probabilities per se. The use of subjective probabilities can be justified if (a) the estimator is calibrated; and (b) there are no equally competent authorities who disagree. Rather, the problem is that Ross provides no evidence that his estimates of his own uncertainty are “calibrated,” i.e., that he consistently avoids a bias towards overconfidence or underconfidence when estimating subjective probabilities.[8] Without a reason to believe that Ross is a calibrated estimator, we have no reason to put any credence into his estimates. And it’s highly probable that Ross is not a calibrated estimator, for the simple reason that calibration training teaches subject matter experts to estimate a range of numerical values, rather than providing point estimates such as those provided by Ross.
(d) Varying the Constants but Fixing the Physics: G&T’s argument depends upon counting the number of possible universes with different values for the anthropic constants but with the same laws of physics. But why restrict the set of possible universes to only those with the same laws of physics? Why not also include possible universes with different physics? Bradley Monton makes this point extremely well; it’s worth quoting him at length.

The general point is as follows: when faced with the fine-tuning evidence, it is reasonable to not be surprised. We already knew that there are many possible universes that are not life-permitting, and yet are similar in certain ways to our actual universe. The fine-tuning argument encourages us to focus our attention on those possible universes that have the same laws of physics as ours, but different fundamental constants. But why not focus on those possible universes that have the same types of particles as ours, but different fundamental laws? Or why not focus on those possible universes that have the same density distribution as ours, but different types of particles? Before I was faced with the fine-tuning evidence, I already knew that our universe was special, in the sense that there are many possible universes similar to ours in certain ways and yet not life-permitting. I already knew that, if God existed, God would have to choose to actualize our life-permitting universe from among a sea of similar non-life-permitting universes. I already knew that, if God did not exist, there’s a sense in which we are lucky that the universe is life-permitting—there are many possible universes similar to ours which are not. The fine-tuning evidence doesn’t change any of that, and hence the fine-tuning evidence doesn’t change my probability for the existence of God.[9]

The upshot is that if our goal is to count the relative frequency of life-permitting universes among all possible universes, then we have to consider all possible universes, not just those with the same laws of physics. Since neither G&T nor Ross have done that, it follows that their defense of this crucial premise (and hence their design argument as a whole) is, at best, incomplete.
(e) The (Im)probability of Fine-Tuning on Theism: Consider an analogy. Let E be the evidence that I rolled a four when rolling a fair six-sided die; geocentrism (G) be the hypothesis that the earth is the center of the solar system; and heliocentrism (H) be the hypothesis that the sun is the center of the solar system. H gives us virtually no reason at all to expect that I would roll a four. In fact, based upon our background knowledge (B) about fair dice, we would predict that I did not roll a four. In other words, H and B combined predict not E (~E). But this would be a horrible reason for saying that E favors G & B over H & B. Why? G and B combined also predict ~E. So there’s no reason at all to think my rolling a four is more probable on G than on H. But then it follows that there’s no reason to think my rolling a four is evidence favoring G over H.
This same point applies to G&T’s design argument. In order to show that the anthropic constants (or any other potential evidence) favor theism over atheism, one has to do more than show that the data is improbable on atheism. One also has to show that (i) theism predicts the data while atheism does not; (ii) atheism predicts the non-existence of the data while theism does not; or (c) that the data is more probable on theism than on atheism.  Otherwise, by definition, there is literally no reason at all to believe that the data is evidence favoring theism over atheism. With that in mind, then, we may ask the following question. What reason do G&T offer for thinking that the anthropic constants are more probable on theism than on atheism? So far as I can tell, the answer is, “None whatsoever.”
Furthermore, it’s far from obvious that the anthropic constants are more probable on theism than on atheism. As G&T explain, theism is the belief that “a personal God who created the universe but is not part of the universe” (22). On the assumption that theism is true, it’s far from obvious that God would fine-tune a physical universe for life. In fact, this is still far from obvious even if we assume that God wants to create other minds besides his own, which is itself a debatable assumption. Even if God wants to create other minds besides his own, why should we assume that He would want to create embodied minds rather than just immaterial souls or spirits? G&T never say; in fact, G&T don’t even consider the question. This is yet another reason why G&T’s design argument is, at best, incomplete.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Edited and with Commentary by Nelson Pike (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merill, 1970); Antony Flew, “Arguments to Design” The Secular Web (1996), I am grateful to Robert Greg Cavin for bringing Nelson Pike’s commentary to my attention.
[2] Paul Draper, “Collins’ Case for Cosmic Design” The Great Debate (2008),
[3] Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Hostility of the Universe to Life: Understated Evidence about Cosmic Fine-Tuning?” The Secular Outpost (January 22, 2013),
[4] Draper 2008.
[5] Draper 2008.
[6] Draper 2008.
[7] Incidentally, intelligent design theorist William Dembski has argued that any event with a probability less than 1 in 10150 can be expected to happen by chance alone during the lifetime of our universe. If Dembski is correct, then this point may undermine the significance of Ross’ probability estimates. But I do not wish to place any emphasis on this point since I was unable to analyze Dembski’s argument before finishing this review. Interested readers may wish to consult William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield,m 2002). Thanks to Richard Carrier for making me aware of this point.
[8] Douglas W. Hubbard, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business (3rd ed., New York: Wiley, 2014).
[9] Bradley Monton, “God, Fine-Tuning, and the Problem of Old Evidence” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (2006): 405-424 at 420-21. Italics are mine.

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 2: Chapter 3

Chapter 3. In the Beginning There Was a Great SURGE

G&T tell us that the “Cosmological Argument is the argument from the beginning of the universe” (74). That is sloppy; G&T have conflated the family of arguments known as ‘the’ cosmological argument with one specific version of that argument (the kalām cosmological argument). But let that pass. G&T formulate the argument as follows.
1. Everything that had a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe had a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe had a cause. (75)
This argument is clearly deductively valid—i.e., its conclusion follows from its premises. If one accepts its conclusion, there are three pertinent questions to answer.
First, what bearing does the argument have on metaphysical naturalism? If sound, the argument would also refute metaphysical naturalism. (Since nothing can cause itself, the universe would require a cause outside of itself, something that is incompatible with naturalism.)[1]
Second, what sort of cause did the universe have? G&T argue that the cause of physical reality, if it exists, must be self-existent, timeless, nonspatial, immaterial, very powerful, highly intelligent, and personal.
Third, what was the universe created from? There are three options.

Creation ex nihilo: physical reality was created out of nothing by the will of a timeless and immaterial person a long time ago.

Creation ex materia: creation out of some pre-existent, eternal matter

Creation ex deo: creation out of the being of God.

G&T argue that the scientific evidence supports creation ex nihilo.
I shall provide a very brief summary of G&T’s support for both premises, before providing some critical comments about G&T’s assessment of atheistic and Christian interpretations of the evidence.
(i) G&T’s support for premises (1) and (2):
(a) The Law of Causality: On behalf of premise (1), which G&T call “The Law of Causality,” G&T argue that the Law of Causality is “the fundamental principle of science;” and observation shows that things don’t happen in the universe without a cause. For reasons that will soon be clear, I shall refer to the “Law of Causality” as the “Law of Causal Beginnings.”
As stated, however, premise (1) is false. The kernel of truth in (1) is what I shall call the “Law of Temporal Causal Beginnings,” namely, that everything that had a beginning in time has a cause.
This is why our observation shows that things which begin in the universe (and so in time) have a cause. Quantum mechanics events aside, I agree with G&T that it would be absurd to believe that cars, mountains, or whales could just pop into existence without a cause. But what about things that have a beginning which happens at the beginning of time itself (i.e., with time)? We know of only one such thing and that is the universe itself.  And there is good reason to doubt that time (and so the universe) have a cause. It’s logically impossible for time itself to have a cause since causes always precede their effects in time. So to say that time itself had a cause is to say, “Before time existed, something happened and then at a later time, time began to exist,” which is self-contradictory.
In order to avoid this problem, some theists have argued that God’s creation of the universe is simultaneous with its beginning. Even if simultaneous causation is possible, which is debatable, that simply solves one problem and creates a bigger one. If God’s causing the universe is simultaneous with the universe’s beginning, then it’s entirely arbitrary to pretend that God is the ‘cause’ while the universe is the ‘effect.’ If “God’s causing the universe” and “the universe’s beginning” are simultaneous, one could just as easily say, “God had a beginning,” and, “The universe caused God.” Both of those statements are incompatible with theism.
But in fact simultaneous causation seems inapplicable to God’s (alleged) causation of the universe. First, even simultaneity expresses a temporal relationship between causes and effects. It seems to be a contradiction in terms to say that the beginning of the universe is simultaneous with an atemporal (timeless) cause.[2] For that implies there was a time when there both was time and was not time, which is a self-contradictory statement. Second, simultaneous causation seems to involve “states of other things that pre-exist the effects in question.”[3] But that entails that the total cause includes something that existed prior to the partial cause which is simultaneous with its effect. In short, the concept of simultaneous causation provides no reason at all to think that premise (1) applies to things (like the universe) which begin with time.
There is an even deeper problem with G&T’s defense of premise (1), however. If we abbreviate “thing that had a beginning” as B and “had a cause” as C, then it is clear that premise (1) expresses a categorical generalization, i.e., it has the form “All Bs are Cs.” If there is even just one counter-example (i.e., at least one B is not also a C), then (1) is false. Is it?
It appears that, In support of (1), G&T appeal to observation, namely, “All observed Bs are Cs,” and infer the categorical generalization, “All Bs are Cs.” In other words, G&T seem to be implicitly relying upon an inductive argument form known as simple enumeration to a generalization. The implied argument is this.
(1) All observed things in the universe with a beginning have a cause.
(2) Therefore, all things with a beginning have a cause.
where B is called the “reference class” and C is called the “attribute class.” The problem is called the “reference class problem,” i.e., the problem of deciding which class to use when stating a generalization. In the case of our universe’s origin, it is far from clear which reference class should be used because our universe belongs to many different reference classes. Wes Morriston, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, explains.

Here are some other well-attested empirical generalizations, each of which is incompatible with that hypothesis [supernatural creation ex nihilo] about the origin of the universe.
(A)   Material things come from material things.
(B)   Nothing is ever created out of nothing.
(C)   Nothing is ever caused by anything that is not itself in time.
(D)   The mental lives of all persons have temporal duration.
(E)    All persons are embodied.[4]

Consider, for example, the generalization in Morriston’s (A), which we’ll call the “Law of Material Causality.” That generalization supports an argument I’ll call the “Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument”:
1. Everything that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material.
2. The universe had a beginning.
3. Therefore, the universe came from pre-existing material.
If the universe came from pre-existing material, then it follows that the universe was not created “out of nothing” (ex nihilo). Rather it was created out of pre-existing material (ex materia). But that entails that supernatural creation ex nihilo is false.
(b) The Universe’s Beginning: On behalf of premise (2), G&T offer five lines of scientific evidence, which they summarize in the mnemonic acronynm “SURGE,” which represents (a) the Second law of thermodynamics, (b) the Universe is expanding; (c) Radiation from the big bang; (d) Great galaxy seeds; and (e) Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In addition, G&T offer one a priori argument—which they mistakenly call the kalām argument—to show that the universe cannot be infinitely old. G&T conclude, accordingly, that the universe had a beginning.
I agree with G&T that it is now beyond reasonable doubt that our universe, as it is now, has existed for a finite time. Whether our universe, in any form, has existed for a finite time may be open to reasonable doubt, however. But let’s put that issue to the side and assume,  but only for the sake of argument, that G&T are correct and our universe had a beginning. As G&T admit, the evidence for Big Bang cosmology shows more than just the fact that our universe has a finite age.

In fact, chronologically, there was no “before” the Big Bang because there are no “befores” without time, and there was no time until the Big Bang. Time, space, and matter came into existence with the Big Bang. (79, italics mine)

In other words, the evidence for Big Bang cosmology also shows that time itself began with the Big Bang (i.e., our universe began with time). Here’s the problem for the proponent of the kalām argument. Although our universe is not eternal (i.e., infinitely old), it’s still the case that it has always existed (i.e., for all of time). But, for the reason just given, it follows that time itself (and hence our universe) cannot have a cause. Thus, once the evidence about our universe’s beginning is fully stated, that evidence does not support theism over naturalism.
(ii) Atheistic Interpretations of Big Bang Cosmology: This is where G&T’s partisanship really comes unleashed. As I read them, G&T discuss and reject three atheistic explanations of Big Bang cosmology:  (1) a view they call the ‘Cosmic Rebound Theory;’ (2) Stephen Hawking’s ‘Imaginary Time’ hypothesis; and (3) the hypothesis defended by chemists Peter Atkins and Isaac Asimov.
When I first read this chapter, three things stood out. First, for each of the views they discussed, G&T neither quote proponents of these views nor fairly explain their values. Regarding (1), why do defenders of the ‘Cosmic Rebound Theory’ think that view is correct? G&T never say. In fact, G&T never even name anyone who promoted such a view. Turning to (2), whereas it is called the “Hartle-Hawking model” or the “no boundary model” in the literature, G&T even rename it to the ‘Imaginary Time’ hypothesis to suit their rhetoric. Many people believe that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest scientists, if not the greatest scientist, alive today.  But if someone knew nothing about Hawking other than what they read in G&T’s book, they’d get the mistaken impression that Hawking is a quack whose theories are not taken seriously, even by Hawking himself! As for (3), G&T don’t even bother to tell the readers what Atkins’s view is; they just proceed to quote William Lane Craig’s refutation.
Second, G&T don’t respond to the best critics of the kalām cosmological argument.[5] In fact, their book may even mislead their readers by making it appear as if only nontheists reject the argument. But that’s false. Thomas Aquinas, who has been called “more or less the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church and esteemed as the greatest Christian philosopher even by many Protestants,” rejected it.[6] In the present day, philosopher Wes Morriston  (quoted earlier) has written some of the best critiques of the argument, while he was still a Christian. It is unfortunate that G&T chose to ignore the critiques of both Aquinas and Morriston in their book.
Third, like many theistic apologists who use the kalām cosmological argument, G&T use the following “money quote” from nontheist philosopher Anthony Kenny.

According to the Big Bang Theory, the whole matter of the universe began to exist at a particular time in the remote past. A proponent of such a theory, at least if he is an atheist, must believe that the matter of the universe came from nothing and by nothing.[7]

At first glance, what Kenny describes does sound absurd. But Kenny is no dummy; philosophical charity demands that we try to understand why someone as brilliant as Kenny would write such a thing. What would it mean to believe that “the matter of the universe came from nothing and by nothing?”
One interpretation, which I shall call the scientific interpretation since it seems to be held primarily by scientists, treats “nothing” as if it were a something, such as a giant empty box into which the universe suddenly began.[8] The problem with this interpretation is that it reifies “nothing.” As philosopher Bede Rundle explains,

… accounts of physical reality as ‘coming out of nothing’ risk not taking ‘nothing’ seriously, perhaps replacing it by ‘nothingness’ to make, as it were, something out of nothing.[9]

But there is another option. According to this second interpretation, which I call the philosophical interpretation, there is no “giant empty box,” i.e., there is no “nothing” for the universe to “come from.” Instead, according to this interpretation, there was no time at which the universe did not exist; and there is no place the universe came from.  This is the interpretation favored by philosophically sophisticated nontheists, such as Sean Carroll, Graham Oppy, Keith Parsons, Bede Rundle, and Quentin Smith.[10]
Let us now return to the Kenny “money quote.” G&T do not distinguish these two interpretations, perhaps (?) because Kenny himself does not, so it’s unclear which interpretation Kenny favors.  On the scientific interpretation, Kenny’s statement does make the combination of atheism and Big Bang cosmology sound absurd. But, as we’ve just seen, many competent authorities disagree with that interpretation, so any appeal to Kenny as an authority is fallacious (assuming he even holds this view). On the scientific interpretation, however, the combination is not only not absurd, but plausible.
(iii) Big Bang Cosmology and the Genesis Accounts: G&T quote astronomers Robert Jastrow and Robert Wilson, who both apparently claim, without qualification, that Big Bang cosmology confirms the Genesis accounts of creation. This curious assessment, however, understates the evidence. On the one hand, Big Bang cosmology is strong evidence for one logical implication of Genesis, namely, that everything in our universe is only finitely old. But, again, that fact hardly exhausts what modern cosmology has to say about the Genesis accounts. NASA explains the first moments after the “Big Bang” as follows.

According to the theories of physics, if we were to look at the Universe one second after the Big Bang, what we would see is a 10-billion degree sea of neutrons, protons, electrons, anti-electrons (positrons), photons, and neutrinos. Then, as time went on, we would see the Universe cool, the neutrons either decaying into protons and electrons or combining with protons to make deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). As it continued to cool, it would eventually reach the temperature where electrons combined with nuclei to form neutral atoms. Before this “recombination” occurred, the Universe would have been opaque because the free electrons would have caused light (photons) to scatter the way sunlight scatters from the water droplets in clouds. But when the free electrons were absorbed to form neutral atoms, the Universe suddenly became transparent. Those same photons–the afterglow of the Big Bang known as cosmic background radiation–can be observed today.[11]

Furthermore, according to modern astronomy, the entire solar system, including the earth, didn’t even form until approximately 8.7 billion years after the Big Bang.
In contrast, Genesis 1 tells a very different cosmological story. According to Genesis 1, God created the earth on the first day and the sun on the fourth. Thus, Big Bang cosmology is strong evidence against the literal chronology of Genesis accounts. But this entails that, when the available evidence from cosmology is fully stated, that evidence makes it probable that a literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts are false.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] In the interest of simplicity, I am treating the expression “the universe” as it appears in G&T’s argument as synonymous with “physical reality.”
[2] Wes Morriston, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause? A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument” Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000): 151.
[3] Wes Morriston, “Causes and Beginnings in the Kalam Argument: Reply to CraigFaith and Philosophy 19 (2002): 233-44 at 240.
[4] Wes Morriston, “Doubts about the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in Debating Christian Theism (ed. Meister, Moreland, and Sweis, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 29.
[5] Paul Draper, Adolf Grünbaum, Wes Morriston, Graham Oppy, Bede Rundle, and Quentin Smith.
[6] Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), Kindle location 1538.
[7] Anthony Kenny, The Five Ways: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Proofs of God’s Existence (New York: Schocken, 1969), 66, quoted in G&T 2004, 81.
[8] See, e.g., Isaac Asimov, Beginning and End (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 148, quoted in G&T 2004, 414, n. 11; Peter Atkins, Creation Revisited: The Origin of Space, Time, and the Universe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994), 139; Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010); Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012); and Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (Buffalo: Prometheus, 2007), 115-17.
[9] Bede Rundle, Where There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 117-18.
[10] See Sean Carroll, “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005): 622-640; Graham Oppy, “Review of J.P. Moreland (ed.), The Creation Hypothesis” The Secular Web (1998),; Keith Parsons; and Rundle 2004.
[11] NASA, “The Big Bang” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (March 8, 2013),

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 1: Introduction

The book’s introduction divides into six parts: (i) the crucial role that beliefs about God play in worldviews; (ii) an overview of three major “religious” worldviews; (iii) a discussion of the role of faith and facts in religion; (iv) three categories of problems with Christianity; (v) the faith of an atheist; and (vi) a high-level summary of their 12-point case for Christianity.
(i) The Role of (A)theology in Worldviews: Geisler and Turek (G&T) state that the answers to life’s “five most consequential questions… depend on the existence of God” (20). I take this to be a typo. As I’m sure G&T agree, if God does not exist, it does not follow that those questions have no answers. In fact, G&T themselves summarize what they think the atheistic answers to those questions must be! So I assume that what G&T meant is that such answers “will be informed by one’s beliefs about the existence of God.” And I take it that this claim is clearly right.
(ii) Three Major “Religious” Worldviews: G&T assert that “Most of the world’s major religions fall into one of these three religious world-views: theism, pantheism, and atheism” (22), which they then define as follows:
Theist: someone who believes in a personal God who created the universe but is not part of the universe
Pantheist: someone who believes in an impersonal God that literally is the universe.
Atheist: someone who does not believe in any type of God.
Additionally, they define an “agnostic” as someone who is unsure about the question of God.
For the most part, I think these definitions are fine. The one concern I have is with G&T’s definition of agnosticism. Since theism, pantheism, and atheism are defined in terms of beliefs, I think it would have been better to define agnosticism as “the lack of beliefs about God’s existence.” Not only does this keep the symmetry going, but, more important, it keeps beliefs separate from a person’s degree of belief, i.e., how much certainty or uncertainty they attach to their beliefs.
(iii) Faith and Facts in Religion: G&T argue that religion is not “simply a matter of faith” because “religion is not only about faith.” Rather, religion also makes truth claims and so “facts” play  a central role as well. This invites the obvious question: what do G&T mean by “faith”? The answer is found in a later section, where they write:
We mean that the less evidence you have for your position, the more faith you need to believe it (and vice versa). Faith covers a gap in knowledge. (26)
Elsewhere, they claim that “every religious worldview requires faith” (25).
There are times where two people speak the same language, use the same words, and mean very different things by the same words. In conversations between Christians and atheists, “faith” is one such word. For many atheists, the word “faith” means, by default, belief without evidence or even belief against the evidence. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell probably summed up the views of most atheists when he wrote this.

We may define “faith” as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith.” We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife, since different groups, substitute different emotions.[1]

In contrast, I doubt many Christians would accept that definition. For example, Hebrews 11:1 (NIV) states, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, faith is a belief that (a) is about something a person hopes is true; and (b) goes beyond the evidence.
Regarding (a), many atheists hope that God exists and that atheism is false. Indeed, for those of us who are former believers, in many cases their loss of belief in God was depressing. In the Hebrews sense of “faith,” then, such atheists do not have faith in atheism, even if they are uncertain about their atheism.
As for (b), I agree with both Christians and atheists on this point. I agree with those Christians who point out that the Biblical concept of faith doesn’t seem to support belief against the evidence. “Going beyond the evidence,” does not mean “going against the evidence.” I also think that “going beyond the evidence” doesn’t entail “there is no evidence at all.” (For example, the conclusions of logically correct inductive arguments go beyond the content of their premises, but their premises are nevertheless evidence for their conclusions.) But I also agree with Russell that, in everyday language, the word “faith” is often used just as he says it is.
In light of this difference in language, then, it’s always puzzled me why Christian apologists like G&T insist on using a word like “faith” in their exchanges with atheists and agnostics. There are other ways to make the same point; there’s no apparent “upside,” and there is a clear “downside.” Christian philosopher Victor Reppert seems to agree. He writes:

Every time you use the word “faith” in a discussion with an atheist, they are going to declare victory. They will presume that you are believing for no reason, and that you are admitting that the evidence is against you.[2]

I think Reppert is probably right. The word “faith” simply has too much baggage and is too off-putting to nontheists. The expressions “uncertain belief” or “probable belief” are two much less contentious ways to make the same point.
(iv) Three Categories of Problems with Christianity: G&T describe three types of obstacles to Christian belief: (1) intellectual (such as the argument from evil); (2) emotional (such as hypocrisy); and (3) volitional (i.e., the desire to sin).
I take it that this list of categories is clearly right, but incomplete. I would add a fourth category: (4) biological (such as mindblindness associated with severe forms of Autism Spectrum Disorders).[3]
Furthermore, as I’m sure G&T would agree, we can use these same four categories to describe Christian obstacles to becoming atheists. For example: (1) intellectual (such as the kalām cosmological argument); (2) emotional (such as the prospect of no afterlife); (3) volitional (i.e., the desire to fit into a religious community); and (4) biological (i.e., the natural tendency to form beliefs about invisible agents).[4]
But G&T do more than just list the different categories of obstacles to Christian belief. They also summarize their assessment of the evidence against Christianity and against God’s existence.

That is, once one looks at the evidence, we think it takes more faith to be a non-Christian than it does to be a Christian. (24)

In fact, they put the point this way.

Indeed, we think our conclusions are true beyond a reasonable doubt. (This type of certainty, say, 95-plus percent certain, is the best that fallible and finite human beings can attain for most questions, and it is more than sufficient for even the biggest decisions in life.) (25, italics mine)

This remarkable degree of probability is supposed to follow from their 12-point case for Christianity. In fact, as I will show in this review, their biased and incomplete summary of the evidence comes nowhere close to justifying a 95% or greater probability that Christianity is true.
(v) The Faith of an Atheist: Consistent with their definition of faith, G&T argue that since atheists are dealing “in the realm of probability rather than absolute certainty,” they have to “have a certain amount of faith to believe that God does not exist” (26). It seems to me that G&T are clearly right that atheists, like theists, can have beliefs about God that are, at best, highly probable, not absolutely certain.
(vi) High-Level Summary of Case for Christianity: In this section G&T offer a preview of their “twelve points that show Christianity is true.” The most important of these points may be summarized as follows.
(a) Arguments for theism: these include versions of the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments
(b) Evidence for Christianity: evidence that Jesus is God, such as his fulfillment of prophecy, miracles, and his resurrection from the dead.
Having outlined G&T’s case for Christian theism, I shall now analyze its logical structure. The good news for G&T is that I have only one comment. The bad news is that I think it is fatal to their project.  The comment is this: G&T’s evidence for Christianity, even if accurate, doesn’t make it probable that Christianity is true. Although G&T explicitly recognize that they are dealing with probabilities, the logical structure of their argument is defective because it fails to satisfy the rules of mathematical probability known as the axioms of the probability calculus.
This is best shown with a concrete example. Let’s suppose, but only for the sake of argument, that the following evidence favors theism over atheism, i.e., is more probable on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that atheism is true: the beginning of the universe, the design of the universe, the design of life, and the existence of the moral law. Even so, it still doesn’t follow that, all things considered, God’s existence is more likely than not. For example, it may be the case—and I think is the case—that there is other evidence which favors atheism over theism. But, if true, that entails that G&T’s case violates the Total Evidence Requirement and so G&T’s case accordingly fails to show that Christianity is probably true.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954, New York: Routledge, 2013), 215.
[2] Victor Reppert, “Matt McCormick on the Meaning of Faith,” Dangerous Idea (July 29, 2012),
[3] Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
[4] Justin Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2004).

bookmark_borderIndex: Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

Review of Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004). 
Like all apologetics books, both Christian and non-Christian, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist book takes a partisan approach to the philosophy of religion. Of course, by itself, the fact that it is a partisan book isn’t a problem. The existence or non-existence of God is an important topic; it’s appropriate for people who’ve reached a conclusion to try to persuade others of their position.
The fundamental problem with this book is the particular way it takes a partisan approach: there are partisan books and then there are obnoxiously partisan books.  Like many (but not all) of those other books in the apologetics genre, the basic approach seems to be the following.

  1. Present and defend the author’s preferred view as favorably as possible.
  2. Represent opposing views as unfavorably as possible.
  3. Reach the remarkable conclusion that–surprise, surprise–the author’s view is true.
  4. Suggest that anyone who disagrees is ignorant, irrational, or has ulterior (non-rational) motives.

The problem with obnoxious apologetics, which seems to afflict as many atheist apologists as theist apologists, is that it’s a fatally flawed way to search for truth. If our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth–and it should be–then the above approach is what not to do. Rather, if our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth, then our basic approach should be to represent opposing views fairly, in the best possible light, and interact with the best arguments both for and against the different viewpoints.
The philosopher George H. Smith once wrote, “We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from the honest pursuit of truth.”[1] Along the same lines, obnoxious apologetics is in no one’s self-interest. First, it clearly is not in the best interest of the community who feels their position has been slandered by the straw men created (and then torn down) by apologists.
Second, it’s not in the self-interest of the obnoxious apologist, since in the long-run it can backfire.  Think of the last time you read or listened to something which you felt misrepresented one of your beliefs (or your arguments for your beliefs). Did you change your mind and drop the belief? Of course not! Did you start thinking of objections and rebuttals as you were reading or listening? Probably!  Indeed, if the misrepresentation was made by someone in the public eye, such as a well-known author, it runs the real risk of inviting corrective reviews (like this one) and damaging the author’s credibility.
Third, it’s not in the self-interest of undecided, sincere seekers who truly want to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Following the evidence wherever it leads requires that all of the available relevant evidence be presented and presented fairly. As we shall see later in this review, Geisler and Turek (hereafter, G&T) fail to do this—over and over again.
This failure not only has a practical cost, but a logical cost as well. As G&T admit, their goal is to show that Christianity is highly probable through the use of inductive arguments based upon empirical evidence. But inductive arguments succeed only when they satisfy the Total Evidence Requirement, viz., that their premises embody all of the available relevant evidence.  As I show below, however, G&T’s inductive arguments fail to do this–both individually and collectively. Accordingly, even if all of G&T’s evidence were accurate, which it isn’t, G&T’s case still wouldn’t succeed in showing that Christianity is probably true.
In order to support this verdict on the book’s approach, I’m going to provide a fairly detailed review of the book’s contents, divided into sections according to the table of contents.
Here is the table of contents for the book:
Foreword by David Limbaugh
Preface: How Much Faith Do You Need to Believe This Book?
Introduction: Finding the Box Top to the Puzzle of Life
1 Can We Handle the Truth?
2 Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All?
3 In the Beginning There Was a Great SURGE
4 Divine Design
5 The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe?
6 New Life Forms: From the Goo to You via the Zoo?
7 Mother Theresa vs. Hitler
8 Miracles: Signs of God or Gullibility
9 Do We Have Early Testimony About Jesus? (Part 1, Part 2)
10 Do We Have Eyewitness Testimony About Jesus?
11 The Top Ten Reasons We Know the New Testament Writers Told the Truth
12 Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
13 Who is Jesus: God? Or Just a Great Moral Teacher?
14 What Did Jesus Teach about the Bible?
15 Conclusion: The Judge, The Servant, and the Box Top
Appendix 1: If God, Why Evil?
Appendix 2: Isn’t That Just Your Interpretation?
Appendix 3: Why the Jesus Seminar Doesn’t Speak for Jesus
[1] George H. Smith, “Atheism: The Case Against God,” speech delivered to the Society of Separationists, 1976. Transcript published as “How to Defend Atheism,” The Secular Web (1976),